The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova on March 17.
They were accused of the war crime of unlawful deportation and transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia. As of April 5, according to the Ukrainian government website, 19,384 children have been deported to Russia since the start of the war in 2022.
Experts have been quick to point out the difficulties that the ICC and the Ukrainian government will run into in proving war crimes and trying to hold those responsible accountable, as well as returning deported children to Ukraine.
While these are undoubtedly daunting challenges, there are lessons for Ukraine that can be drawn from Argentina, which has successfully investigated the plight of the estimated 500 children stolen from their parents during its 1976-1983 dictatorship. Many of the children were placed with military families, and grew up unaware of their true identities.
Although the ICC arrest warrant is an important step, it is just the beginning of the often-winding road to justice. As past experience of international criminal tribunals shows, these institutions can, at best, prosecute the top leadership for human rights atrocities.
But out of the 31 individual cases that the ICC has investigated since 2002, only six defendants in four cases have been convicted.
Scholars also pointed to other shortcomings, including the ICC’s often limited understanding of local politics on the ground. The 1998 Rome statute established that justice should ideally occur in the countries where atrocities were committed, with the ICC stepping in as a last resort. Justice requires local people to have the power to make decisions.
The abduction of children during dictatorship and war is not a new phenomenon. Its origins can be traced back to 1930s’ Spain under Franco’s dictatorship.
But the experience of Argentina illustrates the importance of local courts and grassroots efforts to bring people to justice. To date, 296 criminal trials have probed dictatorship-era crimes there, including child stealing and identity theft.
Investigating cases where children were stolen from their parents played a key role in Argentina’s search for justice since democratisation in 1983. Even when the Argentinian Congress sanctioned the “impunity laws” in 1986 and 1987, resulting in the shelving of the majority of criminal proceedings into past atrocities for many years, prosecutions continued — albeit slowly — against those who had illegally taken children and “adopted” them.
Child abduction had been explicitly excluded from the remit of these impunity laws, allowing 23 people to be sentenced for stealing children between 1988 and 2005.
In 2006, after the overturning of the impunity laws, 26 verdicts were handed down in trials probing the illegal taking of children and another eight for connected crimes (according to data provided for this article by Argentina’s Office of the Prosecutor for Crimes against Humanity). One trial is underway in Buenos Aires for the 1977 abduction of Victoria Donda as a newborn. She later went on to be a member of Parliament.
The criminal investigation of these atrocities has been crucial for Argentina to come to terms with its troubled history. In July 2012, a Buenos Aires federal court condemned former dictator Jorge Videla to 50 years in prison, while eight of his cronies received lesser sentences, for overseeing the systematic theft of babies and minors.
Nuria Piñol, a prosecutor in this historic trial, whom we consulted for this article, noted how that prosecution crucially established that child stealing had been a planned and methodical practice throughout the country. It had also relied on the collaboration of civilian accomplices, including doctors and midwives, and the forgery of identity documents and birth certificates.
Piñol told us how the children and newborns were considered “a war booty,” and that “the military high command clearly intended to remove them from their biological parents, because of their political activism, so that they could be raised differently,” according to the Western and Catholic values the regime espoused.
The identification of deported children is a fundamental part of the process of locating them in Russia and returning them to Ukraine. Here, Ukraine can also learn from Argentina’s experience.
The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, an Argentinian NGO established in 1977, have successfully identified 132 of the estimated 500 stolen children. Science played a key role. Upon the Grandmothers’ requests, US-based geneticists developed in 1984 the “grandparentage index,” which guaranteed 99.99% efficacy in determining kinship given the absence of the children’s parents, whom the dictatorship had forcibly disappeared.
This pioneering DNA test, which Argentina’s Supreme Court admitted as valid evidence, was used that same year for the first time to identify Paula Logares, who had disappeared with her parents in Uruguay in 1978. Since then, this test galvanized efforts to find more missing grandchildren.
The creation of dedicated institutions supported the search for stolen children. These included, in 1987, the National Genetic Data Bank, which provides a permanent repository for genetic profiles of grandparents and other family members to permit identifications, and in 1992, the National Commission for the Right to Identity (CONADI) that proactively works to identify potential new cases.
Recently, the Grandmothers have focused their search efforts beyond Argentina’s borders through outreach campaigns. Since 2021, with the hashtag #ArgentinaTeBusca ("Argentina is looking for you"), the Argentinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, alongside the CONADI and the Grandmothers, are leading an international campaign based on the right to identity. The aim is to encourage people between 40 and 45, who have doubts about their identity, to reach out to the nearest Argentinian embassies and consulates.
Trials for child abduction, similar to Argentina’s, may not be feasible at the moment in Ukraine given how overwhelmed its local judiciary is. However, if the special tribunal currently considered at the international level was to take over trials for crimes of aggression, it could free up space in local courts to investigate child deportation.
As of April 2, only 361 abducted children have been returned. Ukraine is understandably secretive about how this is being achieved. In some cases, parents or grandparents, helped by volunteers, crossed multiple borders to find and bring their children back home.
On March 27, 17 children were brought back with the help of the Save Ukraine Foundation. However, given the large number of the deported children, a more organized and long-term effort is required. Organisations similar to the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the creation of a gene bank could help support these endeavours.
Francesca Lessa, is lecturer in Latin American studies and development, University of Oxford and Svitlana Chernykh is a senior lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public, under a Creative Commons license.
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