Why did the International Criminal Court focus on the transfer and deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia?

(A destroyed vehicle near a playground in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo: Joel Gunter/BBC)

In the days since the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it was charging Vladimir Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova with the war crimes of unlawfully deporting children and transferring them from Ukraine to Russia, many have asked: why did the ICC start with children? Why not other crimes?

The first thing to note is that the arrest warrants issued against Putin and Lvova-Belova represent only the first strike by ICC chief Prosecutor Karim Khan. A few days before the warrants were announced, it was reported that the Prosecutor was preparing another warrant of arrest in relation to the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine by Russian forces. There is every reason to believe that a warrant regarding, for example, Russia’s shelling of apartment buildings, maternity wards, and power plants, is in the pipeline or has already been issued but remains under seal.

Still, why start with the abduction and illegal transfer of children?

First and foremost, the scale of efforts to abduct and transfer children from Ukraine to Russia is staggering. According to reports citing official Ukrainian statistics, 16,226 children have been deported from Ukraine to Russia. 10,513 have been located, and 308 have returned. Per a recent report from Yale University on the matter, this war crime no less a systemic and wholesale atrocity than any other, and it is being perpetrated against a particularly vulnerable group of civilians: children. Sufficient evidence was there for the Prosecutor and the ICC Judges and they went for it. Whether Khan’s team of investigators push to add a warrant for the forcible transfer of children as genocide remains to be seen.

The government of Ukraine has also very clearly communicated to the ICC Prosecutor that the abduction of children is its priority. In a widely televised meeting between Khan and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President informed the Prosecutor of this primary concern for Ukraine, stating:

I know there are a lot of different war crimes and of course we want justice and [to] bring all of these guilty people – all of them. But I think that the priority for our people, it’s about our future generation, it’s about our children. I think that this question is for me, number one, that you can focus on the case of deportation of our children and that it is very important to bring them back.

Focusing on the war crime of illegally transferring and deportating children from Ukraine to Russia indicates that Khan has accepted and is willing to act on the wishes of the Ukrainian state. But there is more to it too.

The focus on children could help delegitimize the very reasons for Putin’s war. In an op-ed that otherwise speculates rather wildly about the consequences of the ICC targeting the Russian President, Michael Byers makes the salient argument that the Court’s “arrest warrant discredits Mr. Putin’s claim that the invasion was an act of self-defence. Abducting children, after all, has nothing to do with protecting Russia against NATO.”

The charges against Putin may also help to undermine the Russian leader’s war efforts. It is universally, or almost universally, seen as unacceptable that children be abducted and harmed in the context of war. Rather than seek a warrant over the destruction of civilian infrastructure or other crimes, the Prosecutor took aim at an atrocity that will resonate very widely as an especially reprehensible act of violence.

No matter what arguments are levied about the war with respect to global politics, geopolitics, and long-standing animosities between Russia and Ukraine, none could possibly justify ripping children from their homes, families, and shelters and forcibly transferring to families abroad.

Moreover, the charges against Putin are difficult for the Kremlin to argue; it is notable that they have not yet tried. Unlike other war crimes that may get bogged down in legal questions around proportionality, necessity, military relevance, distinction, and other key elements in proving war crimes, the abduction and forcible transfer of children is simply reprehensible and shameful. While Putin and the Kremlin may insist that their actions were “humanitarian”, the charges help dispel any notion that the children are anything but victims of Russian aggression and atrocity.

This brings me to another point: many if not most of the children who have been transferred were orphans. They were therefore wards of the Ukrainian state. It seems possible, indeed probable, that Khan may want to push Ukraine to do more to protect these children. The warrant could thus have the effect of creating the necessary political space and freeing up the resources to do more for children in Ukraine who are most at risk of being stolen by Russian soldiers and transferred to be “adopted” in Russia.

There remain many outstanding questions regarding the ICC Prosecutor’s priorities in Ukraine. Some may be answered when the warrants finally become public; they have only been announced, but not publicly released.

It is unlikely that those in Russia devoted to Putin and blindly supportive of his war will be swayed by anything the ICC says or do. As Sergey Vasiliev writes, “for the average Russian citizens consuming state propaganda, the warrants alone will hardly become the straw to break the camel’s back so as to undermine their support for Putin.” But focusing first on the abduction, transfer, and illegal deportation of children as a war crime might just have been the best card the ICC Prosecutor could play. It also has the distinct advantage of being exactly what many Ukrainians wanted most from the Court. That matters.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Children, International Criminal Court (ICC), International Criminal Justice, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why did the International Criminal Court focus on the transfer and deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia?

  1. El roam says:

    Great post. Clarifying indeed the issue ( at least potentially). Yet:

    Concerning Russian counterarguments, Nato is indeed one thing. Another one, is their subjective belief, that the current military operation launched by them, was justified, due to ongoing genocide on the Russian population in Eastern Ukraine. By itself, they may claim then, that they have saved those children allegedly abducted, from another genocide then.

    I quote Putin for example, from:

    “Letter dated 24 February 2022 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General”


    “As I said in my previous address, one cannot look without compassion at what is happening there, but all of this became simply impossible to tolerate. We had to stop this nightmare – a genocide against the millions of people living there who are pinning their hopes only on Russia, on us alone. It is their aspiration, the feelings and pain of these people that were the main motivating force behind our decision to recognize the independence of the Donbass People’s Republics”

    Can be reached, here:



  2. El roam says:

    It would be just better, to reach directly the document ( left above by me) here in that link:



  3. Volodymyr Pylypenko says:

    What Russians are doing with Ukrainian children is not a war crime of deportation but crime of genocide. Here are some thoughts about it👉 https://www.cambridge.org/core/blog/2023/01/24/transferring-of-the-ukrainian-children-to-russia-as-genocidal-act/

  4. Hakimi Abdul Jabar says:

    The Universal Obligations To Prosecute War Crimes and The Universal Application of the Four Geneva Conventions and State Practice

    War is a harsh reality that humanity has grieviously faced throughout its history. It often comes with a great cost: the suffering of innocent civilians, the devastation of infrastructure, and the destruction of entire communities. In order to mitigate the harms of war, the international community has established laws and conventions that regulate the conduct of war and the treatment of its victims. Among the most important of these are the Four Geneva Conventions.

    The Geneva Conventions were first established in 1864 in order to protect the sick and wounded soldiers of the armed forces. Over time, they were expanded to include civilians, prisoners of war, and other non-combatants. The conventions were updated and expanded in 1949, and today they form the cornerstone of international humanitarian law. They are universally recognized as the most important legal instruments for the protection of victims of armed conflict.

    The Four Geneva Conventions deal with a wide range of issues related to the conduct of war and the treatment of its victims. Among the most important of these are the obligations to prosecute war crimes. War crimes are acts committed during armed conflict that are considered to be grave breaches of international humanitarian law. These can include crimes such as the intentional targeting of civilians, the use of prohibited weapons, and the mistreatment of prisoners of war.

    Under the Geneva Conventions, all states are OBLIGATED to ensure that war crimes are prosecuted. This means that states have a legal obligation to investigate allegations of war crimes, to bring those responsible to justice, and to punish them appropriately. This obligation applies to all states, regardless of whether they are parties to the conventions or not.

    The obligation to prosecute war crimes is a strict legal requirement and furthermore, it also bears a moral imperative. War crimes are a betrayal of the very principles that underpin human society. They violate the dignity and rights of the individual, and they undermine the very foundations of justice and the Rule of Law.

    In recent years, there have been many instances where war crimes have been committed with impunity. In some cases, this has been due to a lack of political will on the part of states to prosecute those responsible. In other cases, it has been due to a lack of resources or capacity to carry out investigations and trials.

    As an example, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified that a total of 8,173 civilian deaths as a direct result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as of March 5, 2023. From 24 February 2022, which marked the start of the large-scale armed attack by the Russian Federation, to 5 March 2023, OHCHR recorded 21,793 civilian casualties in the country: 8,173 killed and 13,620 injured.


    It is imperative that the international community redouble its efforts to ensure that war crimes are prosecuted. This means providing states with the necessary resources and support to carry out investigations and trials, and holding those who commit war crimes accountable for their actions.

    The Four Geneva Conventions and the obligations to prosecute war crimes are crucial elements of international humanitarian law. They reflect the universal desire to mitigate the harms of war and to protect the dignity and rights of all individuals affected by armed conflict. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that these obligations are met, and that those who commit war crimes are held accountable for their actions. Only then can we hope to build a more just and peaceful world.

    As earlier stated, ONE of the key obligations established by the Four Geneva Conventions is the obligation to prosecute war crimes committed during armed conflict.

    War crimes are defined by the Geneva Conventions as “grave breaches” of international humanitarian law, and can include offenses such as willful killing, torture, and intentionally causing great suffering. The Geneva Conventions mandate that all states must take steps to prevent and punish these crimes, regardless of whether they are parties to the Conventions.

    State practice has played a crucial role in determining the scope and effectiveness of these obligations. Over the years, many states have taken steps to fulfill their obligations under the Geneva Conventions by enacting laws and regulations that codify these requirements into domestic law.

    For example, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established to prosecute war crimes committed during the conflict. This tribunal was supported by many states, which provided funding, personnel, and other resources to ensure its success.

    Similarly, in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established to bring to justice those who committed atrocities during the conflict. Again, many states provided support to this tribunal, both in terms of funding and personnel.

    The failure to hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable for their actions undermines the legitimacy of the Four Geneva Conventions and erodes the international community’s ability to prevent future atrocities. It is crucial that states fulfill their obligations to prosecute war crimes, not only to bring perpetrators to justice but also to deter future violations of international humanitarian law.

    It must be stringently considered that the Four Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1949, are Universally Applicable, meaning that they apply to all parties involved in armed conflicts, regardless of whether they have ratified the Conventions or not. This is because the Conventions have attained the status of customary international law, which means that they reflect a general practice accepted as law by the international community. As such, all parties to an armed conflict, including non-state actors, are bound by the principles set out in the Geneva Conventions, which provide a framework for the protection of civilians, prisoners of war, and other non-combatants during times of war. The universality of the Geneva Conventions underscores the importance of international humanitarian law as a means of promoting respect for human rights and ensuring that the rules of warfare are respected, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

    In conclusion, State Practice plays a crucial role in determining the effectiveness of the obligations established by the Four Geneva Conventions to prosecute war crimes. History has shown that the international community has been in solidarity to ensure that nation-states fulfill their obligations to prevent and punish war crimes, and to hold accountable those who violate these principles as was seen in the former states of Yugoslavia and Rwanda as examples. A world where the Rule of Law and respect for duly entrenched humanitarian rights and other distinct but complementary rights enshrined in other bodies of law are truly universal.

    Copyright © Hakimi Abdul Jabar (A.J. Hakimi) LLB (Hons) [Wolverhampton], CLP (Hons) [LPQB], CMSA [CFI Vancouver], Certificate in Humanitarian Response to Conflict and Disaster [HarvardX-edx] and THE SOFTWARE SUITE™, Broadway, New York, USA, London, England & Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. March 24, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

  5. seanj says:

    You haven’t really discussed the obtuseness of the crime and how it benefits the USA.

    The crime of genocide by removing children from a war zone is unlike the war crimes being committed in Yemen by Saudi, UAE and USA. It is therefore a strategic pick to task Yale with researching because unlike other crimes, the Russian’s could point and say the USA has done it too, the USA has not committed a similar crime.
    The USA does not take children out of war zones.

    Do you not in anyway find it strange that the US government funded the team in Yale to conduct this investigation as per Michael Tracey https://spotify.link/3qwaaVXduyb

  6. Falcon101 says:

    Looking at the International “Coalition” escalating this war in Ukraine and the Luciferian background along with their intentions of creating a “Global Community”, It appears the US and the Ukraine may be covering up these very crimes that they themselves are perpetrating on the Children of Ukraine by shifting focus onto Putin and his nation as a means to not only cover up their own crimes but also to abscond Russia’s vast resources for their own Corporate, globalist greed.

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