Dustin Johnson | 22 March 2022
The way we say things matters in global politics, especially in the contested narratives about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the face of a blatantly illegal war of aggression where the Russian military has done massive harm to Ukrainian civilians, many NGOs, including those focused on children, have often stuck with typical language calling for “all parties” to the conflict to protect children and abide by the laws of war, and avoid naming the perpetrator of specific attacks that harm children. This language is markedly different from how Ukrainians, some NGOs, other states, and civil society describe the war and risks obscuring the responsibility of the Russian state for war crimes committed against Ukrainian children. What does this say about our sector’s response to the war and our understanding of its discursive dimensions?
The Russian state seeks to portray its war as a “special military operation” aimed at protecting Russians in Ukraine from genocide and as a response to NATO aggression. Parts of this narrative, particularly about the west or NATO also being responsible for the war, have been promoted by many commentators including fellow western leftists. War crimes committed by Russian forces have been cynically blamed on Ukrainians, echoing strategies of denial from the war in Syria. This narrative flies in the face of reporting from Ukraine, the views of Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans about NATO’s role in the war, and Russian officials’ own statements about the war.
In this battle over perception and understanding, the plight of Ukrainian children, their mothers, and pregnant women suffering from Russian military attacks are emotionally and politically powerful. Photos of two pregnant women injured when Russian forces bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol on 9 March shocked the world. Russian officials later falsely claimed the hospital had been vacated and taken over by Ukrainian forces in an attempt to justify the attack and claimed one of the pregnant women was a crisis actor.
On 16 March, Russian forces bombed a theatre in Mariupol that was sheltering over a thousand people in its basement, many of them children. “Children” had been written outside the theatre in Russian and would have been clearly visible to Russian reconnaissance. When asked for an explanation, Russian officials falsely claimed it had been attacked by Ukraine’s Azov Battalion and pinned on Russia. These attacks and the discursive response to them clearly demonstrate the horrors being unleashed by the Russian military on Ukrainian children, and their prominence in the discussion of the war.
In addition to the attacks discussed above, the Russian invasion has subjected Ukrainian children to death, injury, trauma, and destruction of critical infrastructure that are of serious concern for NGOs focused on children. As of 20 March, the Ukrainian government has reported that at least 115 children have been killed and over 140 wounded since the invasion began, but the toll is likely far higher due to the Russian siege and bombardment of several Ukrainian cities. Russian forces have deployed cluster munitions, which are likely to kill and injure children as many bomblets do not explode and are later picked up by curious children, setting them off.
Civilians, including children, have been attacked and killed by Russian forces as they attempt to flee, and there is evidence that they are being intentionally targeted. Over 1.5 million Ukrainian children have fled the country, a large portion of the total number of refugees. Russian forces appear to be targeting infrastructure critical for civilian survival, such as hospitals, water sources, food, and power and heat supplies. Hundreds of schools have been destroyed, from kindergartens to universities. Most recently, Russia has reportedly abducted and deported children in Mariupol to Russia and bombed another school sheltering civilians. There has yet to be any evidence of Ukrainian forces targeting children, and it is reasonable to assume that they are doing their best to protect their own civilians.
In the face of the Russian armed forces’ blatant violation of the UN Charter and the widespread violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions, one would think that children’s rights organizations would be vocal in their condemnation of the war. And in one sense, they have. Reviewing statements and social media posts from a range of the most prominent organizations focused on children’s rights, humanitarian aid for children, and children and armed conflict, all have condemned the violence against Ukrainian children and the harms they are suffering. They often call for peace and an end to attacks on children and critical infrastructure.
However, they often talk about the war in specific ways. Many posts avoid calling it a war, let alone naming it an invasion or aggression committed by the Russian state. They often speak only of “conflict,” “crisis,” or “emergency” in Ukraine without naming who is involved. Some make a generic call for an end to violence and attacks that harm children or remind all involved of their duties to protect children. In many cases, “Russia” is conspicuously missing. One post condemning the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol even included a call for “all parties” to respect the law.
This language aligns with how such organizations tend to discuss armed conflicts and reflects humanitarian norms of neutrality and impartiality. There may also be a need to avoid angering Russia to maintain humanitarian access (though Russia has frequently blocked such access anyway). However, in such a blatantly one-sided war where Russia is the sole aggressor and is pursuing a strategy of killing civilians and children and destroying essential infrastructure, failing to name the responsible party or, worse still, calling for the same restraint from both parties veers dangerously close to both-sidesism.
With the total asymmetry between the legality and morality of the invasion versus Ukraine’s resistance of it, both-sideism risks feeding into propaganda efforts that seek to erode support for Ukraine. It also problematically equates Russia and Ukraine as equal participants in the war and implies that they are both equally likely to commit violations of international law. Some NGOs and UN bodies, and many governments (though they, of course, are situated differently politically), have clearly named Russia as the party responsible for violations of children’s rights and articulated attacks on Ukraine’s children as one of the most severe war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by Russian forces.
Given Russian war aims and methods, Ukrainians will pay a steep price not only in their lives but also their freedom if they do not fight until Russia is forced into an end to the war that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and Ukrainians’ democracy and human rights. It is clear that Ukraine is continuing to fight until this is achieved. Regime change, occupation, or annexation by Russia will only subject Ukrainian children to further harm and erosion of their rights. With these stakes for Ukrainian children, Russia’s responsibility for the war, its attacks on children, and the illegality of the invasion, I argue that we should reassess what children’s rights NGOs should call for in their advocacy. A focus on Russian responsibility for the invasion and commission of war crimes against children paired with supporting Ukraine’s ability to protect its children and acknowledgement of the stakes for children’s future rights would better reflect the ethical, legal, and practical dimensions of the war.
In addition to continuing to address the massive humanitarian needs of Ukrainian children, one concrete strategy that NGOs could pursue is to pressure the UN Secretary-General to declare Ukraine a situation of concern under Security Council Resolution 1379 (2001), as NGOs such as Watchlist have been advocating for years. This would allow the UN to monitor and verify incidents of grave violations of children’s rights, leading to the inclusion of Russia in the Secretary-General’s annual report on CAAC as a violator of children’s rights. While this does not immediately prevent Russia from continuing its war, it is clear from the efforts of states like Saudi Arabia to stay off the list that it can influence states. This would further isolate the Russian government internationally, complement existing efforts of documentation and accountability, and push back on the propaganda narrative that Ukraine is attacking its own people.
Dustin Johnson is a doctoral student in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies. His Ph.D. research focuses on gender dynamics in child protection in UN peacekeeping. You can find him on Twitter at @WarAndCoffee. The views expressed in this post are his own.