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ICC Ukraine Arrest Warrants Illuminate Children’s Experience of Mass Atrocities

ICC judges issue arrest warrant for Putin over alleged war crimes' Guardian newspaper headline Russia Ukraine war article on March 18, 2023. London, UK. —Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo

By Sareta Ashraph

On March 17, 2023, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued warrants of arrest, in the context of the situation in Ukraine, against Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation. 

Much attention has focused on the prosecutorial targets: “going straight to the top” as international legal expert Rebecca Hamilton writes. Equally as historic, however, is the prioritization of investigation and seeking warrants for crimes against children. 

The warrants, which were issued following applications submitted by the Prosecution in February 2023, allege that both suspects are responsible for the war crimes of unlawful deportation of population (children) and of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. The crimes were allegedly committed in Ukrainian occupied territory at least from February 24, 2022. The Chamber underscored that the substance of the warrants would remain secret for the time being “in order to protect victims and witnesses and also to safeguard the investigation.”

These charges were not altogether a surprise: in a publicized recording of a February 16 meeting between President Putin and Commissioner Lvova-Belova, the two discussed “evacuations” of Ukrainian children to Russia, with Lvova-Belova expressing gratitude to Putin for enabling the transfers. In turn, Putin asked after Lvova-Belova’s adoption of a 15-year-old from Donbas. In his fourth visit to Ukraine in early March 2023 (by which time the Prosecution’s application for the arrest warrants had already been filed), Karim Khan, the ICC Prosecutor, indicated that the abduction and transfer of Ukrainian children into Russian territory was a top priority for his Office.

Across all conflicts, children have been among the principal victims of mass atrocity. Investigations of the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Colombia—among many others—have documented the killing and maiming of millions of children in both targeted and indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations and objects, including schools and hospitals. In Syria, for example, a significant number of attacks on hospitals in besieged areas destroyed facilities that had provided necessary maternity and post-natal medical care. Girls and boys have been targeted for rape, sexual slavery, torture, disappearance, and forcible transfer. In many conflicts they have been abducted, forcibly recruited, and made to fight as child soldiers. Access to education is often curtailed, including as a result of the intensity of the conflict, the targeting of schools, and/or the forced displacement of families. With the families struggling to survive, children pay further (and often gendered) prices in the form of child labor and child marriages.

As detailed in a 2020 Save The Children report, in the investigations of mass atrocity, the harms suffered by girls and boys are often unexamined. Where children are recognized as victims in investigations, they are often viewed as a homogenous group, with the diversity of their experiences as a result of their age, gender, class, race, and religion rendered invisible. Often, and depending on the situation being investigated, the crimes against them are understood and investigated in unidimensional ways: with girls as victims of sexual violence (often disappearing into descriptions of women as primary victims) and boys as forced to be child soldiers.

The Putin and Lvova-Belova arrest warrants are not by any means the starting point for international law’s focus on crimes against children, as Cécile Aptel notes in her recently published book “Atrocity Crimes, Children and International Criminal Courts.” The first Nuremberg Judgment, handed down on October 1, 1946, referred to children a dozen times, mentioning them alongside adult victims. It also quotes a statement by Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, concerning specific crimes against children through the Nazis’ Lebensborn Program: “What the nations can offer in the way of good blood of our type, we will take. If necessary, by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us.” 

In 2009, the ICC opened its first trial, that of Thomas Lubanga, former President of the Union des Patriotes Congolais. It dealt exclusively with the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities. Lubanga was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. This was followed by the 2019 conviction of Bosco Ntaganda, former Deputy Chief of the Staff and commander of operations of Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, for 18 counts, including conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years into an armed group. In February 2021, the ICC convicted Dominic Ongwen, Brigade Commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, of crimes against humanity and war crimes. These included sexual and gender-based crimes committed against girls and women, namely forced marriage, torture, rape, sexual slavery, and enslavement, as well as the crime of conscripting children under the age of 15 into his brigade and using them to participate actively in hostilities.

In recent cases of international crimes before national courts, there has also been renewed focus on crimes against children. In Germany in 2021, defendants Jennifer W. and Taha A.J. were convicted in a case that centered on the killing of a five-year-old Yazidi child, purchased and enslaved with her mother in Iraq in 2015. In March 2022, the Stockholm District Court convicted Lina Ishaq as an accomplice for failing, in her capacity as a legal guardian, to prevent her 12-year old son from being recruited and used as a child soldier by ISIS during the armed conflict in Syria.

There continues to be an urgent need for resources to support and grow expertise in the investigation and analysis of crimes against children. This includes increasing the pool of child rights legal and investigative experts, as well as psychologists who can conduct vulnerability assessments and provide crucial support for children who are in contact with international or national justice systems.

The high profile nature of the arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova illuminates the intensity and severity of harm children suffer. By so doing, it underscores the importance of carving a path towards accountability for the girls and boys whose victimhood has so often been obscured by adult-centric understandings of situations of mass atrocity.

Sareta Ashraph is a senior legal consultant with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.