Prosecutors investigating Ukraine’s war crimes case have been investigating allegations of forced deportation of children to Russia since the attack because they wanted to create a genocide charge, the country’s top prosecutor said in an interview.
International humanitarian law classifies forced exile during a conflict as a war crime. Under the 1948 Genocide Convention, “forced transfer of children” is considered genocide, the most serious of war crimes, declaring the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group illegal, in whole or in part.
Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova, who oversees multiple war crimes investigations in Ukraine, said that since the start of the February 24 attacks, “we have more than 20 cases of forcible transfer” from various Eastern European countries to Russia.
“We started this case of genocide from the first day of the war,” Venediktova told Reuters. He said that amidst the chaos and destruction caused by the Russian invasion, focusing on the removal of children offered the best way to preserve the evidence needed to meet the strict legal definition of genocide: “That is why this forced transfer of children is so important to us.”
Venedictova declined to give a number of victims who had been forcibly relocated. However, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova said in mid-May that Russia had displaced more than 210,000 children during the conflict, with a portion of the more than 1.2 million Ukrainians deported against their will in Kyiv.
A Kremlin spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Venediktova’s remarks or on Ukrainian statistics on Russian soil. Russia has said in the past that it is providing humanitarian assistance to those seeking to flee Ukraine voluntarily.
Russia’s state news agency TASS quoted an unnamed law enforcement official as saying on Monday that “more than 1.55 million people from the territories of Ukraine and Donbass have crossed the border into the Russian Federation. More than 254,000 of them are children.”
Russia has called its move in Ukraine a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegations are baseless and that the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.
The Genocide Convention – a treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust – specifies five actions that can constitute a crime, if committed with the intent to commit genocide: to kill members of a group, to inflict serious physical or mental harm on them, to destroy the group. Imposition of living conditions, birth control and forcible transfer of children outside the group.
Venediktova said the investigation into the creation of a genocide case – covering the forced deportation of children and other activities – targeted areas from northern Ukraine to Mykolive and Kherson on the southern coast. But the war is complicating the gathering of evidence, he said.
“To date we have no access to the territory. We do not have access to people we can ask, whom we can interview,” he said. “We are waiting to see when this area will be liberated.”
In addition to the genocide, other alleged war crimes are being investigated in the regions of Kiev, Kharkiv, Lviv, Sumi and Zaitomi, the prosecutor general’s office said. Ukrainian officials say they are investigating the intentional targeting of civilian and civilian infrastructure, rape, torture and extrajudicial killings by Russian forces.
Venediktova said Ukraine had identified more than 600 Russian war crimes suspects and had already begun trials against about 80 of them, a small number of whom were being held as prisoners of war. He did not say whether any of them were being forcibly deported.
Russia has strongly denied that its forces committed war crimes in Ukraine and, as a result, has accused Ukrainian troops of atrocities, including mistreatment of prisoners of war. Kiev says allegations of abuse will be investigated.
Legal barriers to establishing genocide are high, legal experts say, and it has only been proven in international courts for three conflicts – Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia – since it was cemented under humanitarian law.
However, some legal scholars say there is mounting evidence to support a genocide case against Russian criminals in Ukraine, including a pattern of atrocities that could help meet the strict standards required to prove a specific genocidal intent.
A report this week from the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy and the Montreal-based Raul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, citing more than 30 legal experts, says large numbers of children have been forcibly transferred to Russia or Russia-controlled. The area could support a genocide lawsuit.
Melanie O’Brien, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia and president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, told Reuters: “They should focus on forcible transfer of children. This is the strongest evidence in this particular situation.”
“We certainly see the risk of genocide in this situation,” he added.
A spokesman for the UN children’s agency UNICEF in Geneva said they had not been able to enter areas near the Russian border and could not verify any reports of children being forcibly deported from Ukraine.
Venediktova said the investigation into Ukraine’s genocide would rely on the help of international war crimes experts, with a mobile justice team being set up to facilitate the gathering of evidence. He said any criminal should be tried at the International Criminal Court, the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal.
Ukrainian officials say its courts will probably operate at full capacity to handle hundreds of war crimes cases and the idea is to send large cases to the ICC. International tribunals have experts with experience in prosecuting such complex cases, and the national legal system has the opportunity to take action when assistance is needed.
Venediktova spoke after a meeting with ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan in The Hague on Tuesday. Any decision to proceed with the trial of genocide or other war crimes before an international tribunal will be in Khan’s hands.
“We are aware of the allegations and reports of deportations, including of children, and we will do our best to gather evidence that can be assessed or judged in a timely manner,” Khan told Reuters last month.
An ICC spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Ukraine’s genocide investigation.
The ICC began investigating its own war crimes in Ukraine in early March, but Khan declined to give details on Tuesday on what crimes his office would investigate. It has sent 42 experts, prosecutors and staff to Ukraine and plans to open an office in Kiev, he said.
British Attorney Owen Jordash – co-chair of the Criminal Crimes Unit, a measure created in May by the United States, Britain and the European Union to coordinate and streamline Ukraine’s war crimes investigation – says mobile justice teams must be ready to begin. Their work in mid-June.
Asked about attempts to bring genocide cases on the basis of forced deportation, Jordash said: “The evidence that this is happening in various places is growing stronger. The exact nature of this is not yet clear.” He did not provide further details.
Ukraine’s war crimes are the focus of internal investigations, and 18 countries are also examining the exercise of so-called universal jurisdiction, allowing the most serious international crimes to be tried anywhere.
A local Ukrainian court has already tried two war crimes suspects and sentenced three Russian soldiers to 11 years in prison.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)