WAR IN EUROPE OP-ED
Russia tramples international law by abducting Ukrainian children, but South Africa can help get them home – here’s how
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.