The suffering of children in Ukraine

Challenges for children’s rights revealed by the war in Ukraine

Children’s rights represent a paramount challenge in all kinds of crisis. In international law, children have a special position and their interests are regarded as superior to other considerations, according to the principle of the “best interests“. Indeed, they are the ones most affected by warfare: Famine, children soldiers, forced displacement, stalled future prospects and lack of access to education, as well as all forms of psychological and physical suffering need to be watched and tackled.

The 2018 Lebanese drama movie Capernaum illustrates well how children experience war. The refugee child actor starts off with a surrealistic scene in a tribunal, where he prosecutes his own parents for giving birth to him.

Much has been written and said about the suffering of children under the IS, about the teenagers tortured by the Syrian state and about the plight of migrant children in Turkey. Turkish media are reporting on child soldiers fighting within the Kurdish forces, which would represent a blatant violation of international treaties. However, the media has been relatively silent on Ukrainian children.

Raised in Germany, I have met many people who experienced war as children: people in their thirties from the Balkans, elder Germans, Ukrainians and Romanians. These elder people were sometimes forced to fight as teenagers during the Second World War. Some Ukrainian people are even able to tell stories from their own parents or elder siblings, who suffered under the Holodomor, the great famine in the beginning of the 1930s. As famine is looming again in Ukraine, children are at risk again. However, this is only one of the many difficulties children face in Ukraine.

Many types of threats to children’s rights

In Ukraine, children do not only face insecurity and hunger but are affected by many other aspects of war.

Landmines are extremely harmful for the population and primarily hurt children. Since March 1st, Russian troops have been mining streets and residential districts in the Kherson, Chernihiv and Kyiv Oblasts on a massive scale. Russian troops have been reported to use children toys and household items. Very often, children will be the ones to pick up the items and be killed or injured by the landmines.

Among people deported, many are children. According to a statement of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Liudmyla Denisova, Russia has deported 1,377,925 people to its territory, including 234,000 children. These actions violate the Geneva conventions and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This convention establishes principles such as the best interests of the child, the right to liberty and the right to family. Under international humanitarian law, mass deportation of people is qualified as war crime, all the more so the forced transfer of children. “Forcibly transferring children” is classified as genocide under the 1948 genocide convention. In international law, genocide is the most serious of all war crimes.

A topic causing a lot of worries in Ukraine is the recent Russian decree simplifying the procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for Ukrainian orphans or children left without parental care. This would enable Russia to adopt Ukrainian children quickly and easily. Ukrainian officials argue that forcibly transferring children from one human group to another is considered genocide under Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Currently, prosecutors of the ICC are investigating allegations of forced transfer of children, as Ukrainians are preparing a genocide indictment.

Direct attempts to life and physical integrity of children

It is especially worrying that destruction of civilian infrastructure has directly targeted institution meant for children and thus endangered their life as well as their physical integrity. Russian forces conducting the shelling are responsible for violations of International Humanitarian Law under the Geneva Conventions as well as children’s rights under the CRC.

I have received information about several destructions of infrastructure meant for children. The two examples below may just be the tip of the iceberg, as my friends tell me about attacks on preschools allegedly taking place on a weekly basis. I will try to get more information to verify these allegations.

May 24, artillery shelling has been conducted in the Zaporizhia Oblast, Novoiakolivka village. More than 10 residential buildings and a preschool were damaged.

Preschool damaged in Ukraine
Preschool damaged in Ukraine

June 7, in the Donetsk Oblast, Kurakhove town, missiles have stroked, so that four residential buildings and a kindergarten were damaged.

Destroyed Kindergarden Donetsk oblast Kurakhove town

Damaged residential buildings Donetsk oblast Kurakhove town

Damaged residential buildings Donetsk oblast Kurakhove town
A destroyed preschool and residential buildings damaged

Another example of direct attempts against the physical integrity of children is a report about brutality in the Konoplianka village, in the Luhansk Oblast. Three teenagers are said to have been detained and tortured. Their names are Bykov Bohdan Mykolaiovych, Zviahintsev Yevhen Oleksandrovych and Pyvovarov Volodymyr Andriiovych. Bohdan Bykov’s mother said her son faces up to 15 years in prison or the death penalty for removing the Russian flag from a local school.

Why are Russian forces targeting children?

First of all, some shelling may be unintentional and Russian troops to blame for their lack of training rather than for their immorality. Still, Russia has signed the Geneva Conventions and is supposed to train its troops to respect International Humanitarian Law.

Another reason might be a tactic which goal is to destroy the Ukrainian willpower. People afraid for their children are likely to put their family first and neglect the defense of their country.

Finally, the forcible transfer of children might be used to break the feeling of unity among the population. The intention could be that people think that their children are Russian citizens now and therefore fighting Russia would mean to fight the country now taking care of their children.

In any case, if children are instrumentalized in the framework of a wider strategy, the final goal is to break the will of Ukrainian people and lead them to accept the presence of Russia on their territory.

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