Is the transfer by Russia of Ukrainian children to re-education and adoption centers a form of genocide?

Key points
  • The government of Ukraine has officially identified 16,221 deported children as of early March.
  • The transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia has sparked accusations of genocide.
  • Russia claims the transfers are part of a humanitarian project for orphans traumatized by the war.
Throughout Russia’s war against Ukraine, there have been countless reports of alleged .
Now there are accusations of genocide associated with the forcible removal of Ukrainian children to Russia.
in connection with the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova. Source: AFP / Getty

While this is an important legal milestone, the warrants may not necessarily result in an arrest due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms and the likely unwillingness of the Russian state and possibly other states to cooperate.

“Recreational” re-education camps and forced adoption

There have been many reports of Ukrainian children ranging in age from infants to teenagers being forcibly moved to various locations in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.

These transfers date from early February 2022; in the case of the occupied Crimea, transfers of orphans and children left without parental care began as early as 2014.

Russia is now believed to operate a large-scale systematic network of at least 40 “health” re-education camps for thousands of Ukrainian children.
The main purpose of most of these camps appears to be pro-Russian indoctrination and, in some cases, military training.
While Russia does not deny the children were evacuated or that they are currently in Russia, the government claims it is part of a humanitarian project for orphans traumatized by the war.
However, not all of these children are orphans.

Children with living relatives in Ukraine were “recruited” to attend camps in Russia for spurious vacations, according to an investigation by the Humanities Research Lab at the Yale School of Public Health.

Family consent is either given under duress or regularly violated.
When children are in Russia or Crimea, their contact with family members is either limited or non-existent. Most of the children were unable to return home.
It is alarming that Mr. Putin’s “patriotic patronage campaign” is also strongly encouraging Russian families to adopt alleged Ukrainian orphans.

Legislative changes have been made to accelerate the adoption of Ukrainian children and financial incentives for Russian families who do so.

The exact number of Ukrainian children sent to Russia is unknown.
The government of Ukraine has officially identified 16,221 deported children as of early March.
Other estimates put the real number as high as 400,000.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently said that the forced displacement of thousands of Ukrainian children constituted “probably the largest forced deportation in modern history” and a “crime of genocide.”

Is the forced transfer of children an act of genocide?

International law dictates what types of crimes constitute an act of genocide. These acts are listed exhaustively in the 1948 Genocide Convention.
The legal definition of genocide has not changed in 75 years, it is accepted and applicable to all states of the world.

Article II of the Genocide Convention lists the forced transfer of children from one group to another as an act that may amount to genocide if it is done with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Ukrainian children will be protected under this legal definition as a national group.
Evidence to date also suggests that Ukrainian children have been forcibly moved to Russia for the purpose of their potential “integration” or indoctrination into a pro-Russian culture.

While some evidence of this special intent is required, the removal of children from their families, homes and cultures suggests that the purpose of the Russian “evacuation” of the children may be to erase the identity of Ukraine.

Whether Russia succeeds or not is irrelevant; attempting genocide is also a crime.
Russia’s actions are comparable to the Nazi “Germanization program” during World War II, when hundreds of Polish children were handed over to Germany and subsequently adopted by German families.
In addition to being a potential act of genocide, the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia may also constitute a violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as a crime. against humanity.

Russia is a party to all these international instruments and is therefore legally bound to comply with them.

Who is investigating this?

To date, separate investigations into the transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia are being conducted by Amnesty International, the Yale Humanities Research Laboratory in collaboration with the US Department of State, and the Ukrainian Regional Center for Human Rights in collaboration with the Lemkin Institute. on the Prevention of Genocide and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry of the UN Human Rights Council on Ukraine, the report of which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 20, 2020.

The arrest warrants just issued by the International Criminal Court are the first in connection with alleged crimes committed during the war in Ukraine.

The judges of the responsible chambers agreed that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that Mr. Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova were responsible for the “illegal deportation” of Ukrainian children.

Why is evidence critical and difficult to collect?

Successful criminal proceedings will require evidence that the alleged perpetrators have committed genocide beyond reasonable doubt.

Convincing evidence in this regard will be critical; the court will not be satisfied with the lesser standard.

The types of evidence that can support a prosecution can include everything from witness statements to satellite images or video footage.
Any evidence must comply with international standards and prosecution protocols.
It is important to note that the prosecutor’s office will also have to demonstrate not only the fact of the transfer of Ukrainian children, but also that the perpetrators acted with the intent to destroy the Ukrainians as a national group.
This evidence, in particular, will be difficult to collect, but with current technology it is possible.
This allows evidence to be collected in real time and perishable evidence to be stored, for example through social media.

Yvonne Breitweather-Faria is a Juris Doctor and Academician at the University of Queensland.