The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released an “anti-fake“ piece on its website aimed at debunking articles from various sources, including the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), The Washington Post, The Hill, and The New York Times. The articles concern the International Court of Justice (ICC) ruling that issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Children's Rights Commissioner, for allegedly removing children from Ukraine illegally. The Foreign Ministry's piece titled “On US media speculations based on fakes about the ICC warrant and children evacuated from the war zone,” states the following:
“The Western audiences are being deliberately inundated with disinformation by the U.S. media and government agencies. Their aim is to create a false impression among their own people that Russia is responsible for all the problems, and to maintain a negative and antagonistic perception of our nation while discrediting our foreign and domestic policies.”
After accusing foreign publications of fulfilling “yet another order,” the Russian government attempted to refute the ICC accusations in general:
“We would like to reiterate the remarks made by V.A. Nebenzya, Russia's permanent representative to the UN, regarding the evacuation of children from the war zone. He emphasized that this process is being conducted in strict accordance with international humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally, M.V. Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated that the residents of Donbass who were evacuated, including children without parents or guardians, did so voluntarily. They fled the deliberate shelling by the Ukrainian armed forces and sought refuge in our country.”
However, the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not say that children can be taken to an occupying country during hostilities. At the same time, it includes a number of articles that Russia has definitely violated.
- “A child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine <…> that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” (for example, if the parents are abusive) (Article 9);
- “Applications by a child or his or her parents to enter or leave a State Party for the purpose of family reunification shall be dealt with by States Parties in a positive, humane and expeditious manner.”; the right of the child to leave and return to his or her own country must be respected (Article 10);
- “States Parties shall take measures to combat the illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad” (Article 11);
- “States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 14);
- “The adoption of a child shall be authorized only by the competent authorities” (Article 21);
- The child's education should be aimed at “ The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of <…> the country from which he or she may originate” (Article 29), etc.
To summarize, it can be said that Russia not only brought children into its territory without the permission of their parents, relatives, or Ukrainian authorities, but in some instances, they were also subjected to forced reeducation, resulting in the loss of their cultural identity, language, and values. As an instance, Maria Lvova-Belova publicly boasted in September of last year that the children who were removed from Mariupol had been successfully taught to love Russia.
“Upon bringing them to the Moscow region for a brief period of recovery, an incident arose where some of the children spoke unfavorably about the president [Putin], made disparaging remarks, sang the Ukrainian anthem, said 'Glory to Ukraine,' and similar things. We then began saying to the children: 'You say Russia is bad. Well, if it is so, you have the option to go back.' However, none of the children desired to return; instead, they expressed their happiness in staying in Russia. While there may have been some initial negativity, it eventually transformed into love for Russia,” Lvova-Belova said, speaking before the Public Chamber.
The BBC's Russian Service uncovered in February 2023 that the project “Helping Orphans of Donbass” was awarded a presidential grant of nearly 3 million rubles in the Rostov Region. The project's description revealed that it assists Ukrainian children in undergoing the “process of changing their homeland” and introducing them to the “Russian world.”
The children from Kherson who were abducted by Russia and later returned to Ukraine reported that they were subjected to threats of being sent to a Pskov boarding school, were falsely informed that their parents had abandoned them, and were physically assaulted with metal sticks. Moreover, they were also told by the abductors that the liberation of Kherson was not legitimate and that they would remain as “Russian children” permanently.
The Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, in Article 49, clearly specifies that the displacement of protected persons may not take place “outside the bounds of the occupied territory except when for material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement.” Additionally, such persons must be repatriated after hostilities cease, and the evacuation must be reported to the “Protecting Power.” Against this backdrop, Vladimir Putin's decree, which offers a simplified method for orphans from the DNR, LNR, and Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship, appears to breach the Geneva Convention, either indirectly or directly.
The assertion made by Maria Zakharova that the children and orphans who arrived in Russia from Ukraine did so voluntarily contradicts at least one Ukrainian family's experience. During the evacuation from Mariupol, the father of this family was apprehended by the Russian military, and his children were subsequently transported to Russia, separating them. The family was only reunited after the children managed to call their father using a cell phone and tell him they were about to be adopted.
Both Maria Lvova-Belova and Vasily Nebenzya assert that in Russia it is in principle impossible to adopt children from Ukraine, but only to take them under guardianship, which allows the children to return home if their parents can be found. But then, what Lvova-Belova herself says is questionable: in her interview for Rossiyskaya Gazeta the ombudswoman used the word “adoption”:
“Before we adopt children, if it turns out that they are orphans, and even before we find their relatives, if there are any, it is necessary that the children undergo rehabilitation - social, psychological, and for those who will need it, medical rehabilitation as well.”
Despite discrepancies between the statements of Vasily Nebenzya and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Foreign Ministry disregarded them. Instead, it criticized Western journalists for failing to attend Lvova-Belova's press conference held at the Russian Foreign Ministry. The ministry claimed that if they had attended, they would have observed firsthand that the children who were evacuated and placed under the care of Russian families are in good spirits.