UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. envoy charged with trying to protect children caught in conflicts is in Moscow, where she is reported to be meeting Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, who is charged with war crimes for deporting children from Ukraine.
Human Rights Watch strongly criticized Virginia Gamba’s reported meeting with Maria Lvova-Belova, saying the Russian commissioner should be behind bars and not meeting with senior U.N. representatives.
“It’s hard to imagine any circumstance that would justify Gamba meeting with a suspected war criminal, when there are clearly other officials she could meet with instead,” Balkees Jarrah, associate director of the group’s International Justice Program, said.
U.N. associate spokesperson Stephanie Tremblay did not confirm that Gamba was meeting with Lvova-Belova while in Moscow. Pressed on whether there was anyone else Gamba could meet with, Tremblay replied: “Her role is really to do everything she can to improve the protection of children impacted by armed conflict and preventing violations that could be committed against them.”
The spokesperson also would not say whether Gamba was discussing the return of Ukrainian children, telling reporters that details will be included in her report to the U.N. Security Council, which is expected in early July. Gamba was in Ukraine last week to meet with officials there before traveling to Moscow.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Lvova-Belova and Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine.
The deportation of Ukrainian children following Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion is an emotional issue not only for the families but for millions of Ukrainians and their global supporters.
An Associated Press investigation published in October on Lvova-Belova's involvement in the abduction of Ukrainian children found that an open effort to put Ukrainian children up for adoption in Russia was well under way.
The exact number of Ukrainian children taken to Russia has been difficult to determine. A statement posted on Twitter by Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, on April 5 said more than 19,500 children had been seized from their families or orphanages and forcibly deported.
In April, Lvova-Belova addressed an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council by video link. Western ambassadors boycotted the meeting, which had been called by Russia.
She told the council that the children were taken for their safety and Moscow was coordinating with international organizations to return them to their families. She said Russia had taken in more than 5 million Ukrainians, including 700,000 children — all with parents, relatives or legal guardians except for 2,000 from orphanages in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, where fighting has been intense.
By early April, she said, about 1,300 children had been returned to their orphanages, 400 were sent to Russian orphanages, and 358 were placed in foster homes. She insisted there had been no adoptions.
After visiting Ukraine, Gamba commended the Kyiv government for measures it has taken to protect children, who she said are disproportionately affected by the war.
“Children have been killed or maimed, their schools and hospitals have been attacked and the unbearable levels of violence they are experiencing daily is leaving deep scars that will last for a lifetime," she said in a statement on May 14.