Dr. Elīna Šteinerte, Latvian human rights lawyer, a member of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, former Chair Rapporteur and member of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Ms. Šteinerte, in April 2023 you were appointed independent expert of the OSCE Moscow Mechanism on the issue of Forcible Transfer and/or Deportation of Ukrainian Children to the Russian Federation. You were mandated to document crimes against humanity and observe violations of children's rights by the Russian authorities. What kind of general observations have you been able to make?

The Mission established that, since 24 February 2022 and even prior, a large number of Ukrainian children have been displaced from the territory of Ukraine to the temporarily occupied territories and to the territory of the Russian Federation. While the exact numbers remain uncertain, the fact of a large-scale displacement of Ukrainian children is not disputed by either Ukraine and/or Russia. The Mission report primary focus was on orphans and on unaccompanied children, since those constitute the most vulnerable groups among the displaced children. The Mission established three most commonly indicated grounds for the organized displacement of these children as: (1) the evacuation for security reasons, (2) the transfer for the purpose of adoption or foster care, and (3) temporary stays in so-called recreation camps. It was established that through these practices not only has the Russian Federation manifestly violated and continues to violate the best interests of these children repeatedly, but it has also denied these children’s right to, inter alia, identity, family and their right to unite with their family. Russia has also violated and continues to violate its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and this practice of forcible transfers may amount to a crime against humanity of “deportation or forcible transfer of population”.


How did you manage to research in a war-torn country?

The OSCE Moscow Mechanism, designed to be a rapid response mechanism to produce a quick output, requires submission of the report to the OSCE Permanent Council within three weeks. This is not much time, especially given the scale of the issue, as well as the situation in Ukraine, so time was a real challenge. Aside from examining wide variety research reports and media accounts on and around the topic, we started with extensive online consultations with the international organisations, such as the UN and OSCE mechanisms who have presence on the ground; we engaged with the civil society- outside and within Ukraine; we also reached out to brave human rights defenders in Russia as well as those working outside Russia. The input of the civil society was crucial. And we also undertook a trip to Kyiv to meet with the authorities, including the Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for Children’s Rights, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as civil society there. It was a challenging trip- travelling by armoured cars, with air raids and bomb shelters. But it was another crucial part of the Mission that has allowed grounding the findings detailed in the report.


During the EVZ Conversations! discussions, you assured us: „The wheels of the Justice may be turning slowly – but they are turning.“ At the moment, our hands seem tied and perpetrators could get away. How could German civil society best support the struggle for justice?

I certainly do not think that anyone’s hands are tied right now. On the contrary- this is crucial time for gathering information and properly documenting what has happened to these children. Let us not forget that the case of each child is individual, unique, different and deserves proper attention to ensure that the details are properly recorded and captured. And there are thousands of such children. This is a mammoth task that the Ukrainian authorities are undertaking, a task with which they no doubt would appreciate support in terms of not only know-how and logistics, but also accessing the information.

It is also important to keep the issue the public eye as there are times when we see fatigue in our societies over what is going on in Ukraine. This is where the civil society is uniquely placed to make a difference.

But I also would like to highlight the central recommendation of the Mission. The Mission called upon all stakeholders- be they States or civil society, to prioritise the reunification of these children with their families above all. And while it is without a doubt important to ensure accountability, we must not forget the urgency of support that these children require right now.

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