Ukrainian children in a bomb crater from a Russian missile which hit a playground in Kyiv, October 2022 (Photo: Myroslava Barchuk)
As the world immediately knew within minutes of its announcement, on 17 March the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Putin. Putin is accused of the war crimes of unlawful deportation of population and unlawful transfer of population (including children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.
An unprecedented component of this announcement has received less attention: the ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights. Lvova-Belova is accused of deporting and unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Putin's commissioner for children's rights. She is accused by the ICC of the deporting and unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia since 24 February, 2022 (Photo: Wikimedia)
The crimes were allegedly committed in Ukrainian occupied territory at least since 24 February, 2022.
There are reasonable grounds to believe 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), according to the ICC.
Working directly for Putin, Lvova-Belova has led Russia’s efforts to deport thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. She has directed forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families, the so-called ‘patriotic education’ of Ukrainian children, legislative changes to expedite the provision of Russian Federation citizenship to Ukrainian children, and deliberate removal of Ukrainian children by Russia’s forces.
Lvova-Belova is accused by Ukraine officials of violently taking more than 2,000 vulnerable children from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions to Russia, then orchestrating a new policy to facilitate their forced adoptions in Russia.
The Russian government has not denied taking Ukrainian children and has made their adoption by Russian families a centrepiece of its propaganda. In April 2022, Lvova-Belova and her office indicated that around 600 children from Ukraine had been placed in orphanages in Kursk and Nizhny Novgorod before being sent to live with families in the Moscow region.
From the start, Lvova-Belova’s office has made a mockery of children’s rights. The full title of Lvova-Belova’s office is commissioner for children’s rights in the office of the president of the Russian Federation. Her office is supposed to be a type of children’s commissioner or children’s ombudsperson, sometimes called an independent children’s rights institution (ICRI).
Instead, the Russian commissioner is appointed by and must do what the Russian president directs her to do — even when those directions are in opposition to children’s rights and violently harms young people.
As a children’s rights commissioner, Lvova-Belova not only should have tried to stop Putin from committing these war crimes against children, she should have advocated for these children’s rights, rather than using her office to violate them.
Lvova-Belova’s office is fraught with problems that not only led to committing these war crimes, but indeed prevented her from stopping Putin from committing war crimes against children.
A central feature and also main source of legitimacy and strength of ICRIs is their independence. Endowed with legal powers, ICRIs are supposed to monitor and protect children’s rights. The United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child has called on all member parties to the UN Convention to establish ICRIs that advocate for and advance rights of children. That includes Russia, which ratified the Convention in 1990.
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The warrant and accusations emphasise the importance of independence to ICRIs, a feature Lvova-Belova’s office fatally lacks.
The failures and war crimes of Lvova-Belova have not gone unnoticed. The governments of Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the European Union, have sanctioned Lvova-Belova.
The European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC), a network of ICRIs based in Council of Europe member states, has expressed its deepest concerns regarding the safety and well-being of children trapped in the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.
The warrant and, more importantly, the accusations are warnings to leaders of other countries, UN member parties, and human-rights advocates across the world. The warrant points to fundamental problems in how children’s rights and interests are protected. These grave failures illuminate weaknesses in how we protect children and enforce their rights that we must overcome.