Ezequiel Heffes, director of the NGO Watchlist: “Different sources show that the transfer of children is a policy of the Russian government”

ezekiel heffes

ezekiel heffes is the director of Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflicta network of NGOs based in New York that works on the issue of the protection of minors in armed conflicts around the world.

Specialist in international and humanitarian law —he studied law at the University of Buenos Aires, received his PhD from the University of Leiden and is currently a principal investigator at Georgetown Law School—, has extensive experience in law child protection and education in armed conflicts. His career includes direct participation in humanitarian discussions with armed actors from Colombia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Mali, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

caters to infobae by Zoom to talk about the situation of the Ukrainian children taken to Russiaa topic that has gained notoriety after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-BelovaRussia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, for war crimes related to this practice.

The ICC announcement came after the publication of a report of Human Rights Watch, one of the NGOs that make up the network of watch list, which denounced the deportation to Russia of hundreds of Ukrainian children and a report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine who provided key evidence of the illegal transfer.

“There is a lot of substance in these two reports,” he explains. heffes. “The one from the UN was carried out based on more than 600 interviews. The investigators went to the places and speak of violations of humanitarian law with respect to the situation of minors”.

Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova arrives in Moscow with a group of boys illegally transferred from the then-occupied city of Mariupol in October last year.  (Presidency of the Russian Federation)
The Russian official charged by the ICC, Maria Lvova-Belova, arrives in Moscow with a group of boys illegally transferred from the then-occupied city of Mariupol in October last year. (Presidency of the Russian Federation)

—How many illegally transferred minors are we talking about?

—The Ukrainian government speaks of 16,000 cases. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry could not confirm this figure, but the report explicitly says that this is the number that the Ukrainian government alleges there are.

“What about the children taken to Russia?”

—What we know is that the Russian government in May 2022 issued a regulation that facilitates the nationalization of these people in Russian territory. We also know that there are different groups of children who are on the move: orphans who have lost their fathers or mothers as a result of the conflict, children who were in institutions on Ukrainian territory, and also children whose parents are detained or who are not with adults. .

—What is the importance of the arrest warrant of the ICC against Putin?

—It is the first international arrest warrant against the president of a permanent member state of the Security Council. On the other hand, these are the first crimes that Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova have been accused of. It is necessary to see if they are going to accuse them of other crimes and for which ones.

Maria Lvova-Belov in her meeting with Vladimir Putin
Maria Lvova-Belova in a meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president signed a decree in May 2022 to facilitate the granting of Russian citizenship to transferred minors.

—It is the first time that the Court uses the illegal transfer of children as an argument to incriminate…

-This is interesting. The accusation of a conflicting party for the deliberate attack of civilian property is more debatable. Instead, on this issue, we have Putin’s decree that he mentioned before, there are figures that are beginning to be released, there are different reports, such as that of the United Nations Commission and another recent one from Yale University. Different sources are beginning to emerge showing that the transfer of children is a policy of the Russian government. And there were also some expressions from the Ukrainian president, saying that one of his government’s priorities for justice is the situation of minors.

—In addition, the Russian authorities themselves speak openly about this policy

—Yes, the difference is the numbers. They do not say 16 thousand cases, they refer to a much lower number.

How will the arrest warrant affect Putin?

—The discussion is whether Putin has immunity as head of state of Russia. The first point to see is what happens, if they are going to start traveling or not. Supposedly in August he will travel to South Africa for a BRICS summit. We have to see what will happen then. Legally, the 123 states that are parties to the Rome Statute would have an obligation to detain Putin or Maria Lvova Belova, because they have an obligation under the Rome Statute to detain people with arrest warrants. However, last year South Africa in another similar situation did not stop the then president of Sudan. So the discussion is whether he has immunities or not and, therefore, if he is arrested or not arrested on those trips. In any case, the immunity would only be for Putin, but not for Maria Lvova Belova. If she travels, she may be arrested.

– Can Putin really end up in the dock, since Russia did not sign the Rome Statute and does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC?

—It is not part of the Rome Statute and, in fact, after these arrest warrants the Russian government spokesman came out to delegitimize them. Attacking the Court has been an open policy of the Russian government. In the current situation, Russia is not going to hand over Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova. But you have to see what happens in a few years and what happens with other possible accusations and other possible arrest warrants against other people in the Russian government. The process is long. And I say this also because there may be changes in the internal situation in Russia. An example is Sudan: there was an arrest warrant against its president, he was not arrested at that time, but he fell in 2019 due to a coup and now the situation is different. Examples from the past have shown that State leaders have ended up in International Courts for international crimes and have been tried.

Ukrainian boys kidnapped in Russia.
Ukrainian teenagers in the Russian camp of Medvezhonok, where at least 300 kidnapped boys from the occupied territories in Ukraine were housed. (Telegram)

—But this would be the first time that it has happened with the leader of a country with the right of veto in the Security Council. Can’t that be an obstacle?

—For the question of the judicial process of the Criminal Court now it is not necessarily an obstacle. It would be an obstacle for everything that is political negotiation of the conflict. And how this political negotiation of the conflict can influence judicial processes. The Security Council has the power to postpone investigations by the International Criminal Court for resolutions. But there has to be a political agreement for that to happen. However, that is not necessarily a problem in itself, the problem now lies more in the fact that we are talking about a head of state who has immunity. The question is: if he travels to certain places, do they arrest him or not? And if they don’t arrest him, all the discussion that that brings up.

Can the transfer and raising of Ukrainian children to Russia be an indication of genocide, in the sense that it appears to be an effort to eliminate the identity of these people?

—For now, the only accusation that the prosecutor has made is for a war crime. Today the phrase that the ICC uses is that there are reasonable sources to believe that these war crimes have been committed. They are not yet tested, we are in a very preliminary instance. The only thing there are arrest warrants and the formal accusation is still not confirmed due to a procedural question of how the Criminal Court functions. But the arrest warrant is there. This is not to say that in the future there cannot be another category of crimes that fall within. Genocide can be one. There may be others. There may be arrest warrants for the destruction of civilian infrastructure, for example.

-What are the next steps?

—The arrest warrant was made by the Preliminary Questions Chamber, which issues an arrest warrant in dialogue with the prosecutor. Normally in an ICC process the person would be arrested, the process begins and the indictment is confirmed in the pre-trial chamber. Then he goes to the Court itself, which is the one that judges. Now the challenge is what happens if they don’t get arrested. The Court may proceed with the indictment even without the arrest of the persons, but it should justify why it would proceed without their presence.

—In addition to Russia, there are thousands of unaccompanied Ukrainian minors who ended up in other countries. What is your situation?

—Unicef ​​estimates that there are more than 7 million children affected since the beginning of the conflict for different reasons. Not only because of the transfer issue but also because of living in a conflict situation. This has resulted in a situation of lack of access to water, lack of access to education, lack of access to health, lack of access to food in some areas. There are traumatic situations of detained children. There are allegations of cases of sexual violence against children in detention. And children who have seen how their fathers or mothers have died in a conflict situation. There are issues of access to minimal services, but also issues of psychological trauma. This is going to be one of the priorities that governments will have to work on in the future.

Keep reading:

Human Rights Watch denounced the forced deportation to Russia of children from conquered areas of Ukraine

UN investigators denounced the forcible removal of Ukrainian children as a war crime

Theft of children: how is the most sinister face of the Russian invasion that led the International Criminal Court to order the arrest of Vladimir Putin

Daria Herasymchuk, Zelensky’s chosen one to recover the minors stolen by Russia: “We know that there are at least 16,000 kidnapped children”