What's In Blue

Posted Tue 4 Apr 2023

Ukraine: Arria-formula meeting

Tomorrow morning (5 April), Russia will convene an Arria-formula meeting titled “Children and Armed Conflict: Ukrainian Crisis. Evacuating Children From Conflict Zone”. The expected briefers include Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights; Daria Morozova, Commissioner for Human Rights of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic; Eleonora Fedorenko, Commissioner for Children’s Rights of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic; and Evgeny Zhilitsyn, head of the children’s division of the Donetsk centre for traumatology. As described below, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova in March for allegedly committing a war crime. The meeting is open to representatives of all UN member states, permanent observers, UN entities, civil society organisations, and members of the press.

Several Council members have voiced their opposition to the briefers invited by Russia to tomorrow’s meeting. However, an Arria-formula meeting is not a formal meeting of the Council; the member state hosting the meeting has complete discretion in selecting the briefers and other Council members cannot block their participation. In a 4 April tweet, the UK mission to the UN argued that Lvova-Belova “should not be given a platform at the UN to disseminate disinformation”, adding that if she “wishes to provide an account of her actions, she may do so in The Hague.” (In the same tweet, the UK mission announced that its ambassador will not participate in the meeting.)

Some Council members have previously opposed Morozova’s participation in a formal Council meeting. During the Council’s briefing on the situation in Ukraine on 17 March, Russia suggested that Morozova, the “ombudsperson of the Donetsk Region,” brief the Council in her personal capacity under Rule 39 of its provisional rules of procedure. The US responded by calling for a procedural vote, characterising Russia’s request as an attempt to “implicitly extend recognition to illegitimate authorities”. Moreover, the US argued that Morozova’s participation would breach General Assembly Resolution ES-11/4, which urged all states to avoid any dealings that might be construed as recognising an altered status of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The Council voted against allowing Morozova to participate.

Tomorrow’s meeting, which will begin at 10 am EST and take place in Conference Room 7, will not be broadcast on UN TV. It appears that the UK raised an objection to webcasting the meeting on the official UN channel. In line with established practice, the webcasting of Arria-formula meetings via UN TV requires the consent of all Council members; it can therefore be blocked if a single Council member objects. Russian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy criticised the UK’s objection in a 4 April tweet, announcing that “Russia will from now on block UN webcasts of all similar meetings”.

This is the second time in three weeks that a Council member has objected to the webcasting of an Arria-formula meeting. On 17 March, China blocked the webcasting of an Arria-formula meeting on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The meeting was convened by Albania and the US, and co-sponsored by Japan and the Republic of Korea. Albania livestreamed the meeting on its mission’s Facebook page.

According to the concept note circulated by Russia, tomorrow’s meeting aims to provide participants with “objective information on the situation of children” in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine and on “the measures taken by Russia to evacuate the children from danger”.

Russia’s relocation of Ukrainian children from and within Russian-controlled and -occupied territories in Ukraine has been widely reported. According to Ukrainian authorities, over 16,000 children have been deported to Russia since the start of the war. During an interactive dialogue on Ukraine at the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk reported that his office (OHCHR) had documented the transfer of Ukrainian civilians, including unaccompanied children and children living in institutionalised settings, within Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine and to Russia. Türk further noted that some of the documented cases may constitute forced transfers or deportations, which would breach Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits forcible transfers to occupied territory, or deportations to any other country, irrespective of their motive.

OHCHR’s 35th periodic report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, published on 24 March, revealed that between 1 August 2022 and 31 January 2023, OHCHR documented 16 cases of civilians, involving 28 boys and 18 girls, being forcibly transferred from the occupied parts of Ukraine to Russia. The report highlights that international humanitarian law includes a provision “where an occupying power may undertake the temporary evacuation of the civilian population from a given area for the security of the population or imperative military reasons, or specifically of children where there are compelling reasons of health or medical treatment”, adding that “whether such an exception is met needs to be determined in each particular case”.

OHCHR documented multiple cases where children were placed with foster families in Russia and were issued Russian passports. The report highlights that Lvova-Belova personally took a boy into foster care from a group of children who were deported from the Donetsk region to Russia on 27 May 2022, and that he was granted Russian citizenship in September 2022. On 30 May 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that simplified the adoption process for Ukrainian orphans or children without parental care, allowing them to acquire Russian citizenship. The report underlines that, in accordance with Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Russia is prohibited from modifying the personal status of displaced children, including their nationality.

On 15 March, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine presented its findings to the Human Rights Council (HRC). The commission concluded that Russia had committed a wide range of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law (IHL) in various regions of Ukraine and in Russia. The commission found that many of these violations, including the forced transfer and deportation of children, constitute war crimes.

The commission further noted that Russian authorities had breached their obligation under IHL to facilitate the reunion of families separated by the armed conflict, and that measures such as changes to citizenship and family placement that may affect a child’s identity violate their right to preserve their identity. As a result, the commission recommended that Russia cease any further transfers or deportations of children from and within Ukraine and provide information on the number of children transferred or deported from Ukraine to Russia and their current location.

On 17 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova, charging them with the war crime of “unlawful deportation” and “unlawful transfer” of children from Ukraine to Russia. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova denounced the ICC’s arrest warrants as “null and void” during a press briefing on 16 March. At another press briefing on 23 March, Zakharova accused the ICC of being “openly biased, unprofessional, corrupt, and addicted to double standards.”

The concept note prepared by Russia asserts that the Western media’s coverage of the situation in Ukraine’s Donbas region is promoting a “distorted picture marked by disinformation”. Moscow maintains that it has adhered to its obligations under international humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child by temporarily evacuating children from the conflict zone. Additionally, Russia argues that the majority of children who arrived in Russia did so with their parents, guardians, or trustees, and that only a small number were from institutions for orphans and children without parental care. During a press conference on 3 April, Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vassily Nebenzia dismissed the use of the term “adoption” in this context as “deliberately misleading,” instead characterising Russia’s role as providing “temporary guardianship” to the children.

At tomorrow’s meeting, several Council members are expected to condemn Russia for violating international humanitarian law by forcibly transferring and deporting Ukrainian children within Russian-occupied territories and to Russia. These members may reference Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/52/L.41/Rev.1 on the “Situation of human rights stemming from the Russian aggression,” which was adopted today (4 April). The resolution expressed concern about the Commission of Inquiry’s findings and urged Russia to halt the unlawful forced transfer and deportation of civilians, particularly children. It also demanded that Russia provide reliable information on the number and whereabouts of these civilians, ensure their safe and dignified return, and grant unimpeded access to representatives of established international human rights and humanitarian mechanisms.

The resolution was co-sponsored by several member states, including Security Council members Albania, Ecuador, France, Malta, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. It received 28 votes in favour, 17 abstentions, and two votes against. Among the Security Council members currently serving on the Human Rights Council, four voted in favour (France, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, and the US), Gabon abstained, and China voted against the resolution. In April 2022, the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council; it had been serving a three-year term that began in 2021.

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