Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova was indicted by the ICC in March 2023 for the alleged deportation of Ukranian children.
( Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool
Brooke Gladstone: On that note, I think you should introduce the next guest.
Deb Amos: Shortly after the war began, international investigators started looking for ways to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for war crimes. It wasn't until March that the International Criminal Court, the ICC, was finally able to issue arrest warrants for Putin and his commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova for the alleged crimes of deporting Ukrainian children to Russian reeducation camps.
Until now, the US relationship with the ICC has been complicated. In the 21 years since the court's establishment, 123 countries joined the court, the US did not objecting to its jurisdiction over US citizens. Then under President Trump, it got a lot worse. The US plays sanctions on ICC officials and there were statements from Trump's National Security advisor, John Bolton, like this one.
John Bolton: We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.
Deb Amos: President Biden reversed those sanctions when he took office. Then on Wednesday, we heard this.
Female Speaker: A surprising decision from President Biden ordering the US to share evidence of Russian war crimes with the International Criminal Court. That move goes against longstanding US policy and the Pentagon's recommendation.
Deb Amos: Nathaniel Raymond is a war crimes investigator and the executive director of Yale's Humanitarian Research Lab. His team is also part of the state department's conflict observatory. It was set up to investigate Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Their latest report released in the spring was titled Russia's Systematic Program for the Reeducation and Adoption of Ukrainian Children. Raymond's team will likely be the first American group to share data directly with the ICC.
Nathaniel Raymond: This is the biggest of big deals. I never thought I would see the day where an American president, in a specific case before the ICC would authorize the direct sharing of information gathered with US taxpayer support and would encourage the executive branch to actively support an ongoing ICC investigation. Pigs have flown and Midville won the ball game. This is a momentous occasion for everyone who cares about international justice.
Deb Amos: They could have read your report online. What extra do they get now?
Nathaniel Raymond: They get the underlying metadata from our investigative files. They get specific location names and latitude and longitude. They get all the forensic pieces they need to strengthen the case they're already bringing and to potentially bring new elements to the case and new indictments.
Deb Amos: Raymond's team will likely be the first American group to share data directly with the ICC. When we spoke earlier this week, here's how he described his role.
Nathaniel Raymond: To put it in the simplest terms, we're basically Jerry Orbach in Law & Order. We're not Sam Waterson, we are not the prosecutors. We are the cop side of Law & Order.
Deb Amos: In the report, you said there were more than 6,000 Ukrainian children in Russian custody. Who are those kids and how did they come to be in these Russian camps?
Nathaniel Raymond: We're really talking about four groups of kids. The first group are children from primarily Luhansk and Donetsk, who were taken to reeducation camps, often under the guise of going to summer camps, and this program has been going on since 2014. The 6,000 number in our report are primarily children in that group, but there are 3 other groups of kids as well. The second group are referred to by Russia as evacuees from Ukraine's state institutions.
The third group of children are what we call the battlefield kids. Children who were picked up by Russia's combat forces in the early phase of the war, and were taken into Russia's custody often during combat operations. The fourth and final group, which we know the least about, are children who were separated from their parents in the filtration camps that were set up primarily in Donetsk Oblast after the fall of Mariupol. We don't know how many there are, but they have been, in many cases, transferred for adoption and fostering like the evacuees and the battlefield kids.
Deb Amos: You did a comprehensive report from New Haven. How did you do that?
Nathaniel Raymond: Our assistance really came from selfies. Russian officials started taking pictures of themselves with busloads of children being offloaded at these specific facilities, and as we began to look at those photos, we were able to geo-locate the camps. We used satellite imagery to take open source photographs and identify buildings or other visual objects or features, and then overlay that with maps to try to get a precise latitude and longitude of where the photo was taken.
In some cases, the photos themselves have metadata. The time and place that the photo was taken can sometimes be embedded in the photo. Other times, we have to figure it out ourselves, but the officials who were central to the chain of command in moving the children, because they were promoting it for really a public relations campaign aimed at a Russian domestic political audience, we were able to use that as our starting point, and we combined that with information we gathered from Telegram and VK.
Deb Amos: Social media channels that are almost exclusively Russian.
Nathaniel Raymond: Yes, data being generated by the perpetrators combined with the data being generated by parents and others looking for the kids that we began to get a sense of two things. One, the scope of the network, and it's truly a network of 43 facilities we identified, and then the aggregate count of children that we know were deported. And that was where the 6,000 number came from.
Deb Amos: When you wrote 6,000 in the original report, you also said 'to a high degree of certainty.' Is that legal language?
Nathaniel Raymond: That is a term taken from the Berkeley protocol. The Berkeley protocol was developed by the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley to create common evidentiary standards, and so each of our high-confidence findings to translate it into English is really based on five independently verified and corroborated sources for each finding. The key of any prosecution is establishing the who, what, when, where, around the perpetrator. In this case, the perpetrator themselves through the media, were communicating exactly what they were doing, why they were doing it, and how it was being done.
Deb Amos: Putin responded pretty quickly after your report came out.
Nathaniel Raymond: Hours after our report came out in the Russian media, Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, who is also the co-inditee, they're sitting at a desk in the Kremlin and they're recorded in media B-roll. Vladimir Putin asked Maria Lvova-Belova, how is the pilot program in Chechnya for military education of Ukrainian children going? She says it's going very well, and Putin responds and says, "We should expand the program by 2,000 Russian and Ukrainian children." Putin, on tape, says the Russian government is doing military training of children, which is against international law, and then directs Maria Lvova-Belova to expand the program.
Deb Amos: Do you think they knew that they could be found out? Do you think that they believed that they were doing no wrong or they just have been used to impunity to do whatever they wanted?
Nathaniel Raymond: I think one part of the calculus here is that the effort to capture and move these children was part of a broader rebranding in Russian media of the war itself to try to get support from the Russian population for saving these children purportedly from Nazis. Maria Lvova-Belova is seen greeting children in one case at an airport with basically a plastic trash bag filled with teddy bears. You have this charm offensive to really showcase the arrival of these children.
Deb Amos: How effective has that messaging been at convincing Russians that this is not an issue, that they should, they have the right to be doing this?
Nathaniel Raymond: Those who apologize for Russia's behavior say that they are saving children from harm, and they also talk about the conditions at the camp and say, "Look, they're learning musical instruments or they're going to computer camp." My response to that is, well, read the law. When we look at what the international criminal court indicted, the act of deportation is a war crime, but the second crime is transfer. What we know is that Russia is attempting to erase the national or ethnic identity of these children by, in some cases, through courts, changing their name, issuing them Russian passports, and adopting them into Russian families, which is distinctly prohibited by the law.
Deb Amos: This isn't the first time that children have been used as pawns, as you say. In World War II, there was a similar instance of German troops taking Polish kids from their homes and placing them in German families. It was a forcible assimilation. Is there a legal precedent in that case or others for bringing these charges for child abduction to an international stage?
Nathaniel Raymond: In the case that you mentioned of Polish children being transferred to German families by the Third Reich during World War II, that was the first trial at Nuremberg.
Deb Amos: I've seen pictures in Poland of statues of those children. It is a moment that lives in the memory of all Poles to this day. Do you think that Ukraine will have that similar experience?
Nathaniel Raymond: The abduction of Ukrainian children in this war has been, and I'm saying this in the context of all the horrors they have faced since February 2022, stark and central in the Ukrainian psyche in terms of representing why they fight. When I speak to Americans about the ICC indictments, there's often cynicism saying, "Oh, well, Vladimir Putin is never going to face trial or Maria Lvova-Belova is never going to be in the dock in the Hague. It's almost night and day. When I talk to Ukrainians, the ICC indictments for them in this case, were so important, validate their anguish. That matters regardless of whether Putin or Maria Lvova-Belova ever faced trial.
Deb Amos: Nathaniel Raymond is a war crimes investigator and the executive director of Yale's Humanitarian Research Lab. Nathaniel, thanks so much.
Nathaniel Raymond: Thank you, Deb. Always a pleasure
Brooke Gladstone: Coming up the war criminal who got away with it, and the handful of those who didn't.