Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
August 24, 2023
Thank you, Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo, for your briefing. And I thank you, Kateryna Rashevska and Mykola Kuleba, for speaking out today.
On this day in 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union. That same week, Ukraine notified the United Nations of its independence “based on the right of a nation to self-determination in accordance with the Charter.” But 32 years later, today, Ukraine’s very existence is under attack.
For a year and a half, Russian forces have waged a full-scale war on the Ukrainian people. President Putin thought his war of choice would be quick and easy. That the Ukrainian people would wave a white flag in surrender. That somehow, his forces would be greeted as liberators. But he was in for a rude awakening.
Ukrainians have courageously fought back to defend their country’s sovereignty. To defend their freedom. Their democracy. Their culture. And Ukrainians are fighting valiantly to defend and return Ukrainian children who have been forcibly transferred or deported to Russia, Belarus, and Russian-occupied territories.
Children are literally being ripped from their homes. In the year 2023. By a country sitting in this very Chamber. By a permanent member of this Council. This is straight out of a dystopian novel. But this is not fiction. Colleagues, this is not fiction. This is real life.
While estimates vary – and we heard lots of numbers from our briefers – we know, that since February 2022, Russia has forcibly transferred or deported thousands of Ukrainian children including babies as young as four months old. And we know Russia has forcibly transferred or deported Ukrainian children as far back as 2014.
This week, I spoke with three victims of these horrific abuses. One child told me he was at home in Mariupol, living under occupation, when he heard a loud knock on the door. A gang of Russian soldiers, dressed in all black, stood in his doorway. He was told to immediately pack up his belongings. He was deported to Russia, and locked in a dark basement and interrogated. Russian officials threatened to sentence him to 15 years in prison if he ever supported Ukraine. And he was told he would never go back to Ukraine.
Thankfully, this young man is now back in Ukraine. But his story is the exception. We don’t even know the location of so many of the children who have been forcibly transferred.
This week, I also spoke to a Ukrainian mother who was separated from her forcibly deported son for eight long months. And with the help of NGO workers, she bravely traveled to Russia to free him – but only after she was polygraphed and interrogated by Russian authorities for hours and hours.
Colleagues, Russia’s campaign of cruelty continues to this day. Russia and its proxies have detained children fleeing violence. They have forced children out of schools and orphanages. And local proxies have tricked or coerced parents into sending their children to so-called “summer camps” only to be cut off from communication and refused to have their children returned to them.
According to reports, children in these camps are subjected to propaganda, brainwashing, and even given military training. Some are pressured to accept Russian citizenship, and others reportedly adopted by Russian families. You will hear Russian officials say that their transfers of children are part of “humanitarian evacuations.” But this is a gross perversion of reality, and a futile attempt to justify the unjustifiable.
And let’s be clear: these atrocities are being orchestrated by all levels of the Russian government up to the top. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights for allegedly deporting and transferring children from occupied areas of Ukraine.
I want you to stop and think about it. The International Criminal Court has alleged Vladimir Putin is responsible for war crimes. War crimes.
We are also aware of reports that Belarusian leaders have supported moving Ukrainian children to camps in Belarus. According to the National Anti-Crisis Management Group, at least 2,100 Ukrainian children were taken to Belarus from occupied territories between September 2022 and May of this year. We must – we must – hold all of those responsible to account.
And today, the United States is imposing sanctions on two entities and 11 individuals – including individuals who reportedly have facilitated the forcible transfer and deportation of Ukraine’s children to camps. Additionally, we are taking steps to impose visa restrictions on three Russia-installed purported authorities for their involvement in human rights abuses of Ukrainian minors.
The United States will not stand by as Russia carries out these war crimes and crimes against humanity or as it arbitrarily detains political activists, journalists, and opposition leaders – and wrongfully detains American citizens.
That includes the wrongful detention of Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, who languish in Russian prisons. Paul was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Evan, a journalist, was just doing his job.
And today, I want to share a message that comes directly from Evan’s family: They have asked the international community: “To join the United States to do everything possible to [help] bring our son home to his family.” Let us heed their call.
Colleagues, I ask you, for just a moment, to imagine. Imagine what you would do if this was your child – or your grandchild – was taken from you. Of course, you would stop at nothing to secure their freedom and to hold those responsible for these evils to account. You would stop at nothing.
And we must support the return of all forcibly transferred and detained children with the same doggedness and the same determination. Because these children are the world’s children. And we must fight on their behalf as long as it takes, until all are free, and until justice is delivered.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” We must not remain silent. We cannot remain neutral. This is a moment of moral reckoning. And history will judge us by how we respond.
We must hold Russia to account. We must lift up organizations doing the good work of trying to return these children to their families. And we must call on Russia to end its brutal war of aggression, comply with its obligations under international law, and immediately return all of Ukraine’s children.
Thank you very much.