Maverick Citizen


Russia tramples international law by abducting Ukrainian children, but South Africa can help get them home – here’s how

Russia tramples international law by abducting Ukrainian children, but South Africa can help get them home – here’s how
Five-year-old Pablo Sanchez runs among teddy bears and toys at Schuman Roundabout in Brussels, Belgium, on 23 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Olivier Hoslet)

Providing immunity to Vladimir Putin to attend the BRICS Summit, without raising its voice against the large-scale violation of Ukrainian children’s rights, puts the role of South Africa as a human rights defender in the international arena in question.

On June 1, International Children’s Day is celebrated worldwide to recognise and protect the rights of children. South Africa played an important role internationally to defend children’s rights and the first international treaty that the new democratic government ratified on 16 June 1995 was the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

That treaty and other subsequent international human rights laws were established to protect the rights of children – the right to speak their language, to practise their culture and religion, to have a loving home, to keep their name and nationality, to have their parents with them. 

By Russia’s own admission and through the investigation of Russian and Ukrainian human rights organisations, as well as of many reputable international bodies including Amnesty International, the United Nations, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) and Missing Children Europe, and documented cases by the Ukrainian government, the Russian Federation has actively and intentionally deported more than 19,000 children from Ukraine to Russia

Members of NGO Avaaz and Ukrainian refugees gather at Schuman Roundabout in Brussels, Belgium, on 23 February 2023 to bring to attention to the reported claim of abduction of Ukrainian children by Russia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Olivier Hoslet)

This is a gross violation of children’s and human rights. The deportation, abduction and separation of children from their parents and families is the basis for an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin by the International Criminal Court. This is also a crime under customary international law, by which Ukraine, Russia and South Africa are bound.

Deported children do not have the right to refuse Russian citizenship. Instead, Russian authorities can issue Russian citizenship in under 24 hours.

Since 2014, the Russian Federation has systematically violated Ukrainian children’s rights by forcibly transferring and deporting them to Russia. Hundreds of thousands of children are being separated from their families, from their homes and from their culture – even today. 

And yet today (Thursday, 1 June), International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor, other ministers and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, will sit at the same table in Cape Town for a BRICS meeting. Maybe this meeting will be used to discuss children’s rights.

Missing children

In 2014, the Russian Federation violated the UN Charter and invaded sovereign Ukraine. In 2022, Russia escalated its unjust and unprovoked invasion to the full-scale war. During these nine years the UN Human Rights Commission reported annually that Russia was violating human rights and forcibly transferring Ukrainian children to its own territory. 

In February 2023, Russian authorities announced that they had recorded 749,000 Ukrainian children in Russia. The names and whereabouts of many deported children are not released, either to the Ukrainian government, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or any other international organisation that can ensure that deported children can reunite with their families or that their rights can be defended. 

Ukraine has identified and provided to the ICRC the names of 19,358 deported children. Of these only about 13,000 have been located and as of May 2023, only 371 were released to return to their families and caregivers in Ukraine. 

Separation of children from parents 

In the occupied territories, Russian military forces prosecute civilians for any expression of Ukrainian identity. The process to detect this involves interrogation, collection of personal data including mobile apps and social media posts, and forcing civilians to testify or make statements against Ukraine. This is known as a “filtration process” and might also involve forced nudity, torture, ill-treatment and forced disappearance.

If any of the parents fails the “filtration process”, children are separated from their families in blatant disregard of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Abduction of children’s identity and adoption into Russian families

On 30 May 2022, Putin signed a decree that streamlines the process of adopting Ukrainian orphans or those without identified parental care and giving them Russian citizenship. Deported children do not have the right to refuse Russian citizenship. Instead, Russian authorities can issue Russian citizenship in under 24 hours, and during this process can change a child’s name, surname and personal data such as date and place of birth. As a result, relatives have no way of finding and returning their children. All this information does not require journalists’ investigations as it is officially stated by Russian legislation, and in Putin’s official statements.  

While in Russian custody [Ukrainian children are] exposed to a pro-Russian information campaign often amounting to targeted re-education as well as being involved in military education.

Already in October 2022, Russian authorities reported that more than 360 children have been adopted and more than 1,000 are in the process of adoption by Russian families. At the same time, the OSCE report states that Russia is not adhering to its obligation under international humanitarian law to facilitate the return of children, but instead “creates various obstacles for families seeking to get their children back”. 

The forced transfer of children of one group to another for “Russification” through adoption by Russian families and/or transfer to Russian-run orphanages or residential facilities such as “summer camps”, is a violation under Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, (the Genocide Convention), to which both Ukraine and Russia are parties. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

Ukraine Latest: Russia puts thousands of Ukrainian children in re-education camps

The true tragedy of Ukrainian children

The personal involvement of the Russian president in the changes of the legislation is the reason for his arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The information for the warrant came from Putin himself. 

For example, during a meeting with Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova (also the subject of an ICC arrest warrant), Putin suggested that all deported children should be settled in Russia permanently:

Lvova-Belova: … We have already compiled a registry for those [Ukrainian children] who have documents. Some could be put into temporary accommodation, while those with Russian citizenship could settle permanently.

Putin: Why only those with Russian citizenship? This must apply regardless of their citizenship.

Lvova-Belova: There are some legal caveats here that need to be addressed.

Putin: Just tell me what they are, and we will work to remove these barriers. 

A Ukraine war-themed mural on the Mihai Bravu Technical College building in Bucharest, Romania, on 22 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Robert Ghement)

Identity denied

Russia denies the right of Ukrainian children to their identity. Ukrainian children find themselves in an entirely Russian environment, including language, customs and religion, and while in Russian custody are exposed to a pro-Russian information campaign often amounting to targeted re-education as well as being involved in military education.

What South Africa can do? 

If international law fails to serve justice, then the military solution remains the only possible one. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already significantly affected food security on the continent and raised many other financial and humanitarian challenges.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ukrainians are shedding blood on our behalf, but South Africa treats it like a picnic, says Trevor Tutu

In June 2023, the leaders of African states are expected to embark on a peace-building mission to Ukraine and Russia. Negotiating Ukrainian children’s rights could be the argument that requires least compromise but would have an immediate impact on civilians suffering during this conflict. Imagine that more than 19,000 children could return to their families and their homes.

 South Africa can use its close ties with Russia to:

  • Provide the full list and whereabouts of Ukrainian children deported to Russia;
  • Demand that children should not be forcefully separated from their parents and caregivers; and
  • Request to change the law that fast-tracks Russian citizenship for Ukrainian children.

Providing immunity to Putin to attend the BRICS Summit in South Africa, without raising its voice against the large-scale violation of children’s rights which are well documented by Russian and Ukrainian human rights organisations, puts the role of South Africa as a human rights defender in the international arena in question.

Children have the right to be children, and this can be the motto that drives governments’ foreign and domestic policies. This is a matter of choice. DM

Oleksandra Romantsova is executive director of the Centre for Civil Liberties, the human rights NGO awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. Dzvinka Kachur is a representative of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • dmpotulo says:

    You can have some credibility if you can advocate same rights for Palestinian children, they live under occupation and murder by Apartheid Israel. Say something about them maybe I can be persuaded by your article.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Your observation while relevant … does not mean we have to excuse what Russia or ANY other country violating human rights is doing . Similar things are happening to Uyghurs in China as another example . SA (more like the ANC and its lackeys) post Madiba has developed a penchant for being ‘selective’ when it is convenient .

    • Eddie Maulson says:

      If Isreal is doing to Palestinian children anything like the Russians are doing to Ukrainian children then they deserve the same level of censure. This action by the Russians is absolutely monstrous. It will destroy these young people and the abomination being visited on tens of thousands of children will have extreme negative impact probably for generations to come. The legacy will be generations of dysfunctional people suffering from severe psychopathology. It is to be condemned with every fibre available to a compassionate humane being. Its level of evil defies written description.

    • William Stucke says:

      What you seem to forget is that Palestinians are daily shooting rockets into Israel and have vowed to never stop until every Israeli is dead. Israel has made no such declaration and is willing to share, if only Palestinians would let them.

      • Enver Klein says:

        Israel is willing to share what? They occupy more than 90% of what was previously Palestine. It’s interesting how you support an occupier like Israel, but have a problem with Russia. Selective supporter??? Rockets versus Fighter Jets, quite an evenly matched war?

    • William Stucke says:

      There are 4 countries in the world today that still implement Apartheid – that is political rights legally based on RACE. They are, from East to West: Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia and Liberia.

      Israel does not discriminate on the basis of race, which is something that a person has no choice about, but on the basis of religion. Religion is a CHOICE. You can choose to be a member of this religion or that religion, or if you are sensible, no religion at all.

      • Eddie Maulson says:

        While the focus appears to have moved here to Israel and Palestine the Russians continue to indulge in the horror of child abduction and trafficking. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of them.

  • Louise Wilkins says:

    Putin really is a disgusting human being.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    The SA government shows little care for children here. I doubt they will defend Ukrainian children either. These kinds of brutalities scar generations to come and no good will ever come of traumatising people into submission.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Our dear Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor is going to find herself on the wrong side of history I think.

  • roland davies says:

    Shame be upon you ANC,you have forgotten our past,and ignore international wisedom,hardship will be the price we pay,the killing of innocent children,the old and frail,women and men cannot be justified,you are on the wrong side of the present,history will judge you harshly

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