Two weeks ago, six Ukrainian children, including orphans, visited The Hague. Five of them are from Mariupol, and one child is from Kharkiv. These four boys and two girls were returned from Russia. The young Ukrainians called for helping Ukraine return the illegally taken children to their homeland.
The children told their stories of return in The Hague as part of the Bring Kids Back UA campaign, accompanied by Daria Herasymchuk, Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights and Child Rehabilitation, and Dmytro Lubinets, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Ukrainian delegation provided information on the forced displacement of Ukrainian children by the Russian Federation, including the mechanisms of the international crime committed by Russia.
Meetings were held, in particular, with Hanke Bruins Slot, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and representatives of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Dutch Parliament.
So, how did the Netherlands react to the stories of Ukrainian children returned from Russia? Have their voices been heard? And what assistance the Netherlands is ready to provide to speed up the return of Ukrainian children to their families? Ukrinform discussed all this with Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, in an interview.
THE NETHERLANDS WILL CONTINUE TO SUPPORT UKRAINE
How would you rate your visit to the Netherlands?
I had the most positive experience. When preparing for this trip, we knew that the Netherlands is one of the countries that help us. The Netherlands helps us systematically and is not afraid of the Russian reaction to such assistance. The announcement of the F-16 aircraft alone is worth a lot. Therefore, we knew that we were going to our partners, our main partners, close partners, friends, so to speak, so our expectations were positive, and they were confirmed.
What were the main messages? Were you heard in The Hague?
At all the meetings, we received words of support, and the key message was given by the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs: ‘We will help Ukraine as much as Ukraine asks for and as required by the situation in which Ukraine finds itself’.
Everyone clearly understands that there is a war going on, that it has been going on since 2014. You know, no one is substituting concepts. As for the meeting in parliament, I had a proposal that the first international visit of the friendship group and the chairperson of the parliamentary committee on international cooperation should be to Ukraine so that the issue of the Ukrainian children situation could be raised as quickly as possible. And that the resolution should be adopted by the newly elected Dutch parliament. They liked these proposals very much, so I invited them to Ukraine. A friendly atmosphere prevailed during all the meetings.
The meeting between the children and the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs was very touching. Her face showed compassion and a desire to help. What kind of support did the minister offer? What did you manage to agree on?
As for the statements of the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, she asked for specific recommendations on where they could be involved in addition to words of support. The same suggestion was made at the meeting in parliament. We discussed both the creation of rehabilitation centres for children and the development of specific tools for searching for children in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine and the Russian Federation. By the way, we also raised the issue of civilian hostages and violations of the rights of prisoners of war in the parliament. The MPs had a wider range of questions in these areas, and they were the ones who asked. It was extremely gratifying that they not only raised the issue but also read our reports on many categories of Ukrainian citizens who, unfortunately, are in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine, where their rights are being violated.
There were many substantive proposals that we cannot voice publicly; at least my position is this: let’s implement something and show an already implemented project rather than just informing that we are going to do something. We hope the work will continue after the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands on 22 November. Everyone believed that the newly elected parliament and the newly formed government will continue to support Ukraine.
We also raised another issue: they are currently preparing their budget, so I asked that when voting for this budget, which will be adopted by the current parliament, they take into account the long-term programmes of support for Ukraine. This applies to both humanitarian and military assistance programmes.
Of course, I could not help but raise the issue of joining the European Union and NATO. As the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, I voiced my opinion that this is an effective tool for protecting the rights of Ukrainian citizens. I also said that we, as Ukrainians, as a nation, think that the only way to end this war is to liberate all Ukrainian territories temporarily occupied by the Russian aggressor.
RAPID DNA TESTS ARE ONE OF THE TOOLS FOR EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands has announced her intention to provide Ukraine with rapid DNA tests to help establish the kinship of children abducted by Russia and facilitate their speedy return to their families. How many of these rapid tests will Ukraine receive?
I cannot disclose the details, but I would like to note the activities of our embassy and the Ambassador in particular. The tests will be transferred after the public announcement, and, in my opinion, this is one of the tools to help our citizens effectively. We really need the DNA kits. It is a matter of identifying children by confirming paternity and kinship with the children we will be returning. This also applies to adults and civilian hostages.
Has a DNA database been created in Ukraine?
No, it hasn’t. We do not have a DNA database on children. I think it will be as follows. When we receive the tests, those relatives looking for their children will be able to take them so that such a DNA database will appear in some kind of register. After that, no matter how long it takes, we will be able to get physical access to a certain area and take the same tests. We will simply use matches to prove kinship.
How is Russia trying to erase family ties and influence Ukrainian children?
One of the biggest issues and challenges I face in my work is the return of Ukrainian children, because children grow up very quickly. Unfortunately, they are under constant pressure from Russian propaganda. Everything is done there to make sure that the child does not just forget his or her Ukrainian past. They want parents and relatives to be forgotten, they want the children to forget where they are from or that they once spoke Ukrainian and called themselves Ukrainian. We know that Russia is working on this systematically. How can we then prove that this child is from Ukraine if the Russians take away documents, change information about children, do not issue them, and do not provide a mechanism to confirm that they are children from Ukraine? That is, even after our victory, when perhaps the next new government will come to Russia and possibly grant access, how can we confirm that these are our children? This is why it is a very complicated mechanism to confirm family ties.
RUSSIA CONTINUES TO ABDUCT UKRAINIAN CHILDREN
The children in The Hague told politicians their horrific stories about what they had to endure in the temporarily occupied territories and Russia. What was the main goal, and what result did you achieve after hearing these stories in The Hague directly from the children, not from Ukrainian politicians?
The main goal was to show that, unfortunately, Ukrainian children are still deported. They are basically kidnapped. We did not force anyone to come here. I really liked the question asked to the children: ‘Why do you think you are doing this?’ I was extremely impressed by the answer of a boy, Ivan, from Mariupol. He said: ‘I am doing this so that all Ukrainian children, who are now in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine and in the territory of the Russian Federation, could return home to their families and friends’.
We want governments and parliaments to understand that this tragedy is ongoing and that there should not be such a thing in the modern world that a country feels free to abduct children and gets away with it. I am most outraged that the president of a country that occupies 20% of our territory, kills Ukrainian citizens every day, kills and maims children, commits crimes of sexual violence against children, is invited to the G20 summit. The 20 largest countries in the world are actually inviting him there, despite the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). I want to ask the highest officials of this planet sometimes: do you live in a parallel world? On the one hand, you realise what is happening, but on the other hand, you continue to have economic and diplomatic ties with this person and this country. Isn’t this the worst kind of cynicism?
How do you think the war in Ukraine can change the world? How can international standards and norms developed after the Second World War and organisations that have actually proved to be incapable of functioning, change?
They are actually incapable. They cannot cope with modern challenges. They have no real mechanisms to influence aggression, they cannot stop it. As a result, there is increasing aggression in the world. This is the main problem of the modern world. And it is not even a question of whether the war in Ukraine will change international organisations or not. They need to understand that this is not a question of Ukraine. It is a question of their existence. They have to change, or they will simply seize to exist. There have been similar situations in human history, such as the League of Nations: the same organisation as the United Nations, the same incapability, the same reaction to aggression – deeply concerned. All this led to the Second World War.
Either international organisations will change, or we are already on the verge of a third world war. Again, I don’t want to scare anyone, these are our realities, and we, as Ukrainians, as a state, have been living in these realities since 2014. For nine years, there has been a war in the centre of Europe; for nine years, one country has been physically abducting Ukrainian children; and for nine years, there has been virtually no strong reaction from the world. And the point here is not that we are being helped. Please note that organisations do not help us. We get help from specific countries instead. That is, it was the decision of governments, parliaments, presidents, but the tools that were launched after the Second World War to prevent aggression in the world have shown their ineffectiveness. That is why I am convinced that everyone understands that Ukraine is a driver, a country that shows examples of how to change and act quickly.
What can you tell us about the mechanisms for returning Ukrainian children?
I can say that as of now, we have managed to return 386 children. These are the children who were returned from the territory of the Russian Federation. We do have a number of children returned from the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine who are legally considered forcibly displaced, but this is the same crime. And it is 99% the merit of the state of Ukraine and Ukrainians that our children have returned home. I cannot say now that any of our partners have been very effective. Yes, we have organisations that help us. Still, their assistance is effective on the territory we control as a state. In contrast, on the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine and in the territory of the Russian Federation, all communication and everything related to the return is extremely difficult.
I hope that in the near future, we will be able to show that one of the partners, perhaps several partners, will become so effective that we will start returning hundreds, thousands of Ukrainian children and civilians. Whenever I meet with potential partners, I always express my wish that they choose one of the areas of work and show specific results. Even if it is a small result. It is ok to achieve something big by taking one step at a time. My communication usually ends very simply. Do you want to help us bring back Ukrainian children? Here is a list of 10 children. We will give you more if you need more, but show us that you can return at least one Ukrainian child. If this happens, I will be the first to come out and say publicly: ‘Thank you, and well done returning them’. This is also how I build my communication with potential partners who can help us, both with regard to civilian hostages and prisoners of war.
When you talk about partners, do you mean countries?
When I talk about partners, I don’t just mean countries. We also have organisations that have expressed their interest in helping us return our citizens.
THE PROCESS OF DOCUMENTING WAR CRIMES
Do you have any information on how many of our children are in the temporarily occupied territories, in the territory of the Russian Federation, and possibly in Belarus?
You are aware that publicly we speak of about 20,000 Ukrainian children whom we have verified, but this figure could actually be much higher. The Russians themselves claim to have 744,000 Ukrainian children on their territory. In my opinion, it makes perfect sense regarding how they ended up there: it was not their choice. Like, they lived in Ukrainian cities, everything was fine, and then they decided at one point: why don’t we go to the territory of the Russian Federation? Of course not! This is a consequence of Russian aggression – that’s what’s important to understand. First, they came to us with aggression, then they blocked the evacuation of civilians. After that, some organisations played along, unfortunately: look, they are saviours, they are supposedly saving Ukrainian citizens, they opened the borders to allow refugees to leave. But did these people have a choice?
So, I think this situation must be viewed through the lens of the fact that Ukrainian people on the territory of the Russian Federation are all victims of Russian aggression. And Ukraine demands that international organisations help us receive lists of these children, lists of their parents, where they are now, what conditions they live in, and that we are physically provided with access to them.
How does the process of transferring information about the returned children to the ICC work?
The process is as follows. After we return Ukrainian children, first things first, our Ukrainian therapists talk to them and assess their condition. Then the child must undergo a medical examination, which is absolutely free of charge, everything is provided at public expense. Therapists give their opinion; doctors give their opinion. No official procedure is ever initiated until a therapist confirms that the child’s psychological state allows for communication with them and that they are not against such communication. Not only does the child have to agree. We have to make sure that the parents or legal guardians agree, too. Doctors also give their opinion.
We had a case with a boy named Serhii. Upon his return, he came for a routine medical examination and stayed for almost two weeks. The boy underwent a complicated surgery on his leg, and he also had a problem with his eye. This child has twice experienced the consequences of Russian aggression: back in 2015, he was injured when a Russian mine exploded near him. After the surgery, Serhii is feeling well, and therapists have talked with him. After all these incidents, the Child Rights Protection Centre was established in Ukraine on the initiative of the President. A special space has been created there based on the Barnahus model, where when talking to a therapist, a child can provide information that can be used by the ICC.
By our prosecutors or the ones from the ICC?
For a child, it is a simple conversation with a therapist, and they do not even feel that any kind of official process is being recorded. Legally, these are representatives of our national law enforcement agencies, but we have received an expert opinion that this format is not only suitable, but is fully accepted by the ICC. That is why all this is happening in this way. Ukraine fulfils its task, documents war crimes, and passes them on to the ICC representatives in Ukraine, and the Office of the Prosecutor General is responsible for this. I believe everything is done through the child protection procedure as much as possible.
During your visit to The Hague, the ICC Prosecutor Kareem Khan was in Ukraine. The International Criminal Court has opened an office in Kyiv. How can this help in the search for and return of Ukrainian children? You also had a meeting at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was held off the record. What did you discuss at the ICC?
We had a meeting with the head of the secretariat, which is actually the highest official who ensures the ICC activities. What was my main goal? Firstly, to establish communication. As the Ombudsman of Ukraine, I am accumulating information about violations of the rights of Ukrainian citizens by the Russian Federation. I am ready to personally provide all the necessary information on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Any option suits us to move the process of documenting war crimes committed by Russia on the territory of Ukraine forward. I don’t expect any breakthrough, and it’s clear that a breakthrough here depends primarily on the ICC prosecutors.
Coincidentally, the ICC has recently opened a permanent office in Ukraine. We welcome this. As someone who has met with ICC representatives in Ukraine, I definitely welcome this initiative. It will speed up the transfer of data from our country, from our government agencies to the ICC. I would very much like to see the list of arrest warrants grow, because it is not Putin and Lvova-Belova who are physically deporting and abducting Ukrainian children. Thousands of Russian citizens holding various positions are involved in this. We must not stop. This is my main message to the ICC. We certainly appreciate this serious step, but don’t stop.
Iryna Drabok, The Hague
Photos taken by the author