Russian transfers of Ukrainian children 'a war crime': UN probe

At a glance

  • A refugee boy looks over a barrier at the refugee shelter, where currently around 150 Roma and Ukrainians live together, in Uzhhorod, western Ukraine, on March 2, 2023. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

GENEVA, Switzerland -- Russia's forced transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children to areas under its control amounts to a war crime, UN investigators said Thursday, adding that they are probing allegations of genocide in the Ukraine conflict.

Presenting their first report, the high-level team of investigators said they had determined that Russian authorities had committed "a wide range of war crimes" since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. They also warned of possible crimes against humanity.

But Erik Mose, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry (COI), said that so far they "have not found that there has been a genocide within Ukraine".

Asked about specific accusations of genocide, including the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to areas under Russian control, Mose said: "We are absolutely aware of these possibilities, and we will pursue this" if the commission's mandate is prolonged.

The investigators' report did however conclude that the forced deportations of Ukrainian children "violate international humanitarian law, and amount to a war crime".

According to Kyiv, 16,221 Ukrainian children had been deported to Russia as of last month.

The investigators said they could not verify the figures but said they had documented that Russian officials had taken measures to place transferred Ukrainian children in institutions and foster homes, and to give them Russian citizenship.

'Pattern of torture'
The investigators said they had reviewed in detail incidents concerning the transfer of 164 children, aged four to 18, from the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kherson.

They said parents and children had spoken of youngsters being informed by Russian social services that they would be placed in foster families or adopted, and said children "expressed a profound fear of being permanently separated" from relatives.

The report highlighted numerous other Russian violations in Ukraine that it said amounted to war crimes, including widespread attacks on civilians and infrastructure, killings, torture and rape and other sexual violence.

It also said Moscow could be responsible for the even more serious "crimes against humanity", pointing to the wave of Russian attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure that began last October, and to a "widespread pattern of torture and inhuman treatment" in areas under Russia's control.

'Systematic and widespread'
"Russian authorities used torture in a systematic and widespread manner," the report said, indicating that "Russian authorities may have committed torture as crimes against humanity".

"The commission recommends further investigations," Mose said.

The investigators said they had also tried to determine whether the massive bombing and months-long siege of Ukraine's southeastern city of Mariupol before it fell to the Russians last May might constitute a crime against humanity.

But without access to the Donetsk region, "it does not have a sufficient basis to make such determination and recommends further investigations", it said.

The investigators said Thursday that they had also documented "a small number" of violations committed by Ukrainian armed forces, including "two incidents that qualify as war crimes," including the likely use of cluster munitions.

They stressed the need for accountability for all the violations documented, and Mose said they had gathered information on suspected perpetrators "which may form a list to be submitted to the relevant authorities."

The commission was created last year, and the Human Rights Council will decide next month whether to extend its one-year mandate.

"The conflict is ongoing and there is a lot of work to be done... this is meaningful work," said Mose.

Ukraine and its allies are meanwhile calling for the COI mission not only to be prolonged, but also strengthened.

Katharina Stasch, Germany's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said Thursday the COI report had confirmed Russia's "abhorrent" war crimes in Ukraine, and showed why further investigation of "the child abductions should be explicitly included in the new mandate".