On March 17, 2023, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants against Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova. According to the ICC statement, Vladimir Putin “is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation (under articles 8(2)(a)(vii) and 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute).” If further adds that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes, (i) for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others (article 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute), and (ii) for his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts, or allowed for their commission, and who were under his effective authority and control, pursuant to superior responsibility (article 28(b) of the Rome Statute).”
The ICC statement further alleges that Ms Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, is responsible for the same crimes that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Ms Lvova-Belova bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes, for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others (article 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute).” The arrest warrants were made public as the alleged atrocities are ongoing and with the hope that public awareness of the warrants may contribute to the prevention of the further commission of crimes.
The arrest warrants come a day after the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine indicated that “while looking into transfers of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation, the Commission found, with concern, that violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed. Situations concerning the transfer and deportation of children which it has examined amount to war crimes. Witnesses told the Commission that many of the younger children transferred were not able to establish contact with their families and might lose contact with them indefinitely. Delay in the repatriation of civilians may also amount to a war crime.”
Concerns in relation to the issue of abductions of children have been raised for many months now. In April 2022, shortly after Putin attacked Ukraine, Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner, Lyudmila Denysova, indicated that thousands of children have been forcibly deported to Russia. This number included orphaned children and those who have one or both parents. Denysova further added that Russia was “mak[ing] changes to the legislation to organize the accelerated procedure of adoption of children from Donbas.” According to Denysova, “Russia repeats the 2014 scenario when it was taken out of the occupied Crimea of Ukrainian children so-called ‘train of hope’ for their adoption.”
In June 2022, the U.K. Government imposed the Magnitsky sanctions on Ms Lvova-Belova for her alleged involvement in the forced transfer and adoption of Ukrainian children. As the statement indicated, “Lvova-Belova has been accused of enabling 2,000 vulnerable children [to be] violently taken from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and orchestrating a new policy to facilitate their forced adoptions in Russia.” The numbers are said to only have increased over time. Putin is not hiding the crime and pledged to help to smoothen the process of adoption of Ukrainian children. In a video circulating online, Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner is said to be telling Putin about the “big hearts” of people in Russia who “are lining up to take the children.” Make no mistake. These adoptions are illegal. Also, removing children from their country, their community, and their culture is not in the best interest of these children. The best interest of these children is not taken into consideration at all. The practice aims to strip them of their Ukrainian identity.
In 2022, researchers from the Newline Institute and Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, when analyzing the issue of the serious risk of genocide in Ukraine, considered the reports of abductions of Ukrainian children. Their report concluded that “the large-scale transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-controlled territory can amount to “[f]orcibly transferring children of the group to another group,” under Art. II (e) of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and part of Putin’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian identity and the national group as such.
The step shows that the ICC is taking seriously the evidence of crimes committed against children. Perpetrators of crimes committed against children are rarely held accountable. This is true across all conflicts. As such, among the numerous legal steps taken, by Ukraine and other countries, to investigate and prosecute the crimes perpetrated by Putin, it is crucial that the crimes perpetrated against children are not forgotten. They must be duly investigated and prosecuted, whether as war crimes, crimes against humanity or even genocide. Justice and accountability for crimes against children are crucial to prevent such crimes in the future.