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Grave violations by Russia against Ukrainian children and the UN's failure of accountability

Dustin Johnson | 30 June 2023

On 27 June, the UN Secretary-General released his annual report on children and armed conflict, which for the first time listed a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia, for committing grave violations against children. This shaming of Russia was rightfully praised by human rights organizations. Yet, the specific ways in which Russia’s actions during its invasion of Ukraine are treated in the report constitute a stunning failure of accountability and calls into question the report’s integrity. The report essentially treats Russia as a legitimate participant in a war that is clearly in breach of the UN Charter and the prohibition on wars of aggression, and gives credit to Russia for yet-to-be-realized measures to protect children when Russian forces have engaged in a clear pattern of intentionally targeting Ukrainian children. In this piece I analyse these severe flaws and suggest one possible reason for this failure of accountability.

Each year, this report is compiled and released based on information collected and verified through the UN's Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM). It focuses on the Six Grave Violations of children’s rights, identified by the Security Council as the most severe abuses against children during war: recruitment and use of children as soldiers, killing and maiming of children, abduction of children, sexual violence against children, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access. Survivors and witnesses of these violations are interviewed, and when there is sufficient evidence from multiple sources an incident is considered to be verified. Consequently, the annual report is supposed to provide reliable evidence that certain violations took place, but also severely undercounts the number of violations due to the difficulty of verification in a conflict zone. When a party to a conflict, whether a state armed force or non-state armed group, engages in a consistent pattern of grave violations, the Secretary-General can choose to add them to a list in the annex of the report, in a “naming and shaming” strategy to encourage them to cease committing violations and trigger the development of a formal action plan between that party and the UN. Since 2017, the list has been split into two parts: one section for parties that have not put in place measures to protect children (part A), and one section for those who have (part B). This split in the annex is a result of the controversial failure to list the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen in the 2016 report and then removing them in the 2020 report. This controversy is likely to continue with the way in which Russia was listed, and the continuing failure to list the Israeli military for its grave violations in Palestine.

Russia is listed in Annex II, part B of the 2023 report, among “Listed parties that have put in place measures during the reporting period aimed at improving the protection of children.” It notes that Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups have been listed for killing and maiming children, and attacks on schools and hospitals. The body of the report states that the reason for this listing is:

in consideration of their engagement with my Special Representative for attacks on schools and hospitals and for killing of children ... I urge the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law and to urgently finalize and implement their commitments to protect children, including by avoiding the military use of schools and hospitals, putting in place accountability and reparations measures, exchanging information with the United Nations on all children identified in conflict-affected areas and increasing the provision of access to all children in conflict zones, as well as securing humanitarian corridors as relevant and requested. (Pages 40-41).

It appears that this reference to engagement with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC) and measures Russia should put in place is about the SRSG’s visit to Moscow in May 2023, where she met with the Russian Presidential Commissioner on Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, who at the time was under indictment by the International Criminal Court for the mass deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. The SRSG office’s press release about the visit states that:

The Special Representative held constructive discussions and advocated for the development of a Plan to prevent grave violations against children, including measures for the handover and release of children affected by conflict, military command orders, training on the prevention of grave violations against children and the correct procedures to be followed for the urgent tracing and reunification of children displaced, transferred and or deported during the conflict, including through the establishment of a functioning mechanism of tracing family links and prioritizing family reunification according to the rights and best interests of children. The Russian Federation agreed to develop such a joint prevention plan to prevent grave violations against children.

As noted above, the listing of a party in the annexes to the report is supposed to be for what happened during the reporting period, which is in the title of each annex and is stated in the report's introduction. The statements above in the report and from the SRSG’s office make it clear that any measures to protect children in Ukraine are currently commitments from the Russian government for future action, and that these commitments were made in 2023, after the reporting period. Yet, the Secretary-General chose to list Russia in the section of the annexes that gives credit for taking measures to protect children, which is generally seen as a less shameful listing than being in part A of the list.

To make matters worse, these commitments seem to have in part come from one of the officials overseeing the deportation of Ukrainian children that the statement obliquely references, who as noted has been indicted by the ICC for that crime against humanity. These commitments also come from a government that has displayed both a clear pattern of intentionally targeting Ukrainian children, and profusely lying about the war and violating international commitments. Several such attacks clearly illustrate this trend and call into question the UN apparently taking the Russian government’s assertions at face value.

On 9 March 2022, the Russian military carried out an airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol, killing four people. The OSCE later concluded that this attack was a war crime. The Russian government responded by saying that the hospital was being used by Ukrainian affiliated forces from the Azov Battalion (an assertion presented at the UN Security Council before the attack) and that thus the attack was justified. The supposed presence of Azov Battalion fighters at the hospital was subsequently debunked.

On 16 March 2022, the Russian military bombed a theatre in Mariupol that was sheltering large numbers of civilians, killing as many as 600. The word “children” in Russian was written in large letters on the pavement outside the theatre, and would have been clearly visible to Russian reconnaissance. Several reports, including from the OSCE and Amnesty International, confirmed that the attack was perpetrated by Russia and was a war crime. The Russian government denied they had carried out the attack and instead claimed that the Azov Battalion had blown up the theatre and blamed it on Russia.

On 8 April 2022, the Russian military launched a Tochka-U ballistic missile equipped with an anti-personnel warhead at the train station in Kramatorsk, where a large crowd of civilians was waiting to evacuate. 63 people including 9 children were killed. Russian forces had written “for the children” on the missile, apparently to indicate that the attack was in revenge for supposed Ukrainian attacks on children in occupied eastern Ukraine. Russia at first claimed that they had struck a military target at the train station, then changed their response and claimed it was a Ukrainian attack blamed on Russia, for which there is no evidence.

And on 28 June 2023, the day after the 2023 annual report was released, the Russian military struck a restaurant in the city of Kramatorsk with an Iskander ballistic missile, killing three children among at least 9 others, and damaging several nearby schools. A man was subsequently arrested and charged with providing targeting information for the strike, indicating that the restaurant was intentionally targeted, possibly as it was “popular with volunteers, journalists, and soldiers.”

There are countless other cases of the Russian military carrying out attacks on civilians and children and then blaming them on Ukraine or denying that they happened, which make any supposed commitments by Russia to better protect children ring hollow.

Additionally, there are two other major problems with how the report assesses the invasion of Ukraine.

First, the report verified grave violations committed by Russian forces, including using children as human shields, killing and maiming children, sexual violence against children, abduction of children, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access. In other words, all six grave violations. However, Russian forces are listed in the annex only for killing and maiming, and attacks on schools and hospitals (note that denial of humanitarian access is not a trigger for listing). While far more of these two violations were verified compared to the others and hence them forming the reason for the listing, the UN was only able to verify 91 cases of abduction. In comparison, the Ukrainian government has documented over 19,000 cases of child abduction by Russian forces, and ICC investigators were able to collect sufficient evidence to indict both Maria Lvova-Belova as mentioned above, and Russian president Vladimir Putin for this crime. One wonders why the UN was unable to verify more of these violations and list Russian forces for them, as the ICC notes that the Russian military under Putin’s orders was involved. Russia has not tried to hide these actions either, and claims it is in fact saving children from Ukrainian attacks, a lie it repeated in response to the 2023 annual report.

Second, the report effectively treats Ukrainian and Russian forces as equal, legitimate participants in the war. The report does give credit to Ukraine for more constructive engagement with the UN on improving protection of children, but otherwise the Secretary-General’s recommendations are entirely around ensuring respect for international humanitarian law and international human rights law by both countries in order to protect children. There is no mention that the quickest and most lawful way to protect children would be for Russian forces to end the war and withdraw from Ukraine, nor is there mention of the need for peace or that the war is in violation of the UN Charter. This is in contrast to the discussion of several other conflicts, where the report urges continued implementation of peace agreements, truces, or other political processes in Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

The net effect of these issues in the report is that it uncomfortably echoes Russian propaganda that paints Russia as a legitimate party to the war and not the aggressor, that it is a responsible international actor upholding the law, and that Ukraine is committing serious human rights violations against its own children.

How did the Secretary-General come to release such a flawed report, on some of the most serious crimes during armed conflict, when he has previously condemned the invasion as a violation of the UN Charter and called on Russia to withdraw its troops? Similarly, the SRSG also early in the war called for an end to hostilities, the beginning of peace negotiations, and respect for the Charter. Aside from the UN's standard humanitarian aim to maintain neutrality, one possible reason is the tendency in international child protection efforts to depoliticize child protection, attempting to see it as an issue that can be separated from the core contentions of the conflict to allow for negotiations and actions to protect children even when other negotiations are not possible. While this approach can have its merits, in a situation like the invasion of Ukraine where one side intentionally targets children as part of an illegal war, the attempt to treat both sides equally and child protection as a separate matter from the reasons for the conflict can end up aiding the aggressor’s narrative of the war. Even with this explanation and the underlying reasons for neutrality and depoliticization, the credit given to Russia for protective measures that have not yet been implemented, and were likely promised only as propaganda, is inexplicable and a severe blow to the report's credibility.


Dustin Johnson is a fourth year doctoral student in the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg whose research focuses on gender and child protection in United Nations peacekeeping missions. The views and analysis in this piece are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.


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