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Accountability and the ICC: Russian War Crimes against Ukrainian Children

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Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation (left), and Maria Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation (right). (, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

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By Nancy Ries
Colgate University
Associate Editor, Today's Totalitarianism

March 2023

On March 17, 2023, International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Karim Ahmad Khan issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, and Maria Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, for the war crime of the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. These charges fall under articles 8(2)(a)(vii) and 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute. Putin is only the third sitting head of state to be charged for war crimes by the ICC; the others were Libya’s Muammar Khaddafi and Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir; neither of whom were brought to the Hague for trial.


In his statement about the issuance of the arrest warrants, the ICC Chief Prosecutor referenced his visits to Ukrainian care homes near the frontlines of the war, one of the locations from which children had been deported to Russia. He also noted that other charges against Russian leaders could follow: “As I stated when in Bucha last May, Ukraine is a crime scene that encompasses a complex and broad range of alleged international crimes. We will not hesitate to submit further applications for warrants of arrest when the evidence requires us to do so.”


The specific evidence of the scale and scope of the crime of unlawful deportation in the ICC’s warrant is not made public, though Chief Prosecutor Khan’s statement suggests it is relatively narrow for the moment, focused on deportations from children’s care homes, possibly because of the abundance of evidence of this specific crime. However, a highly detailed investigative report by the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health, released in February 2023, speaks to the vast, centralized coordination of this part of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.


The report, “Russia’s Systematic Program for the Re-Education and Adoption of Ukraine’s Children,” relies on concrete evidence about the transfers of more than six thousand children from Ukraine to Russia; the network of at least 43 camps in which children are held, and the practices of “re-education” to which children in these camps are subject. Flow charts illustrate the roles which federal and regional leaders play in the children’s organized relocation and detention, the practices of denying them communication with their families , and their ultimate placement in Russian families through fostering or adoption.

"The report, 'Russia’s Systematic Program for the Re-Education and Adoption of Ukraine’s Children,' relies on concrete evidence about the transfers of more than six thousand children from Ukraine to Russia"

In what ways might this ICC arrest warrant impact Russian leader Putin and his campaign of war against Ukraine? Some suggest that the ICC warrant narrows Putin’s world considerably; he cannot travel without threat of arrest to any of the 123 countries that are signatories to the Rome Statute. This means Putin cannot visit two BRICS countries, Brazil and South Africa. The 2023 BRICS Summit is scheduled to be held in South Africa, whose leader has expressed support for Putin even during the war and abstained from UN condemnations. It will be interesting to watch how the ICC warrant plays in that country and among other friends of Russia in the global south.


In Europe, ICC signatory Hungary blocked a joint EU statement about the ICC warrant, while Aleksandar Vućič, president of Serbia, also a Rome Statute signatory, criticized the ICC warrant, arguing it would accomplish little and even prolong the war. Vućič, who has refused to join sanction regimes against Russia, has been a critic of international criminal justice systems after serving under Slobodan Milosevič at the end of the latter’s presidency. (The reformist alliance Serbian government turned Milosevič over to the ICTY in the Hague soon after he was defeated in the 2000 elections.)


It is clear from various statements and reportage that the ICC announcement has rattled many both within and outside of Russia. The geopolitical impacts and implications of the warrant will become clear only over time, but it is already apparent that this ICC action discomfits many Putin allies and apologists, however much they declare it meaningless. If nothing else, the warrant’s focus on the deportation of children makes it hard to brush off, though Russian propagandists are already working overtime to spin it in a host of ways, with both disinformation and as an occasion to issue new warnings against Ukraine’s supporters. On Monday March 20, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev threatened a Russian hypersonic missile strike on the Hague, while other lead propagandists proposed nuclear strikes were Putin to be arrested.


Vladimir Putin legitimizes his regime and his war by visiting other heads of state and by cultivating support from non-aligned and anti-Western leaders. The ICC warrant means that all international travel, for the rest of his life, potentially threatens Putin’s freedom (planes can be forced down, as happened with Belarusian activists in 2021). For other state officials, at every level from the highest Kremlin inner circles to the local administrators of deportation camps for children, the ICC warrant – and those which Chief Prosecutor Khan suggested would follow – stands as a threat of arrest, extradition, trial, and imprisonment. While at present this seems hard to imagine, as it was in Serbia, a future democratic government of Russia, keen to restore some vestige of international standing and rule of law, could turn over those the ICC may name for trial in the Hague.


Yet perhaps the most important aspect of the March 17 warrant is not the naming of President Vladimir Putin, but the arrest warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights who has organized, facilitated, and widely publicized the transfer of Ukrainian children, as well as “adopting” one Ukrainian teenage boy herself. Thousands of other mid- and low-level state officials aiding the genocidal aspects of Russia’s war on Ukraine cannot ignore this warrant as they organize or carry out specific tasks in Putin’s war. It may force some to consider the potential legal consequences of their actions.


Decades after the state terror regime in Argentina, grandparents still search for children kidnapped by the junta and adopted out to childless military families and state officials. There is a hideous echo of that history in Russia’s actions, on a far larger scale against Ukrainian children and their families. It seems the Kremlin regime long planned such crimes on the basis of models provided by the past century. Will Ukrainian parents and grandparents find their missing loved ones, and will they do so quickly? It is hard to imagine the rapid resolution of such terrible losses. But the mechanisms of justice seem to be functioning with more courage and efficiency than in decades past. Might they help to diminish the sense of impunity on which authoritarian leaders and militarists worldwide have long relied?


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Nancy Ries is Professor of Anthropology and Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University. She has done ethnographic fieldwork in Russia since the 1980s specializing on Russian political discourse and practice. She has published extensively on Russia, including work on Russian organized crime and "thugocratic" rule. Her 2009 article “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” won the Cultural Horizons Prize from the journal Cultural Anthropology.

Cite this article as: Ries, Nancy. March 2023. 'Accountability and the ICC: Russian War Crimes against Ukrainian Children.' Today's Totalitarianism.

Opinions expressed are the author's and not necessarily that of Today's Totalitarianism

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