MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Carpenter, thank you so much for joining us again on a Brussels Hub call. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Great. Thank you so much, and thanks to everyone for joining us. And belatedly, happy World Press Freedom Day. What you all do as journalists is so important for democracy worldwide, for accountability, for human rights. We’re very grateful for what you do, often under very difficult circumstances.
I’m going to speak with you today on the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report that was presented this morning at the OSCE’s Permanent Council. The report looked into allegations of abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed by Russia’s authorities in connection with the forcible transfer or deportation of Ukrainian children.
There have been a lot of horrible crimes committed by Russia’s forces in Ukraine, but the separation of children from their families, their forced transfer to another country, and their subsequent adoption or re-education by complete strangers are among the most vile and repugnant. I think it goes without saying that no government should ever be committing crimes against children, and to do so with the aim of erasing their national identity so as to pave the way for one state to take over the territory of another is simply unconscionable.
As many of you know, the OSCE is one of many organizations seeking accountability for war crimes in Ukraine. This is the third OSCE Moscow Mechanism fact-finding team that has been devoted to documenting Russia’s crimes in Ukraine since February 24th of last year. And as far as I’m aware, it’s the first report by an international organization focused solely on forcibly deported children.
The OSCE has, of course, cooperated and will continue to cooperate with other accountability mechanisms, including the O – excuse me, including the UN’s Independent Commission of Inquiry, the International Criminal Court, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, and other bodies.
Some of these other bodies have already addressed the question of forcibly deported children, and of course I’m sure you all are aware the ICC has issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, for their alleged violations of the Rome Statute on the unlawful transfer of Ukrainian children.
Today’s Moscow Mechanism Report is meant to be complementary with all of the other efforts to seek accountability. I should also note that this particular Moscow Mechanism was invoked by 45 of the OSCE’s 57 participating states and fully supported by Ukraine as the host country. This is tied for the largest number of states ever to support such a mechanism.
So now let me turn to the report’s findings. The report’s conclusion states very clearly, quote, “Not only has the Russian Federation manifestly violated the best interests of Ukrainian children repeatedly, it has also denied their right to identity, [their right to] family … as well as the right to thought, conscience and religion, right to health, and … right to liberty and security,” end quote. It states that Russia’s “non-consensual evacuations, transfers and prolonged displacement of Ukrainian children constitute violations of [international humanitarian law], and in certain cases amount to grave breaches of the Geneva Convention … and war crimes.” It also qualifies these as likely crimes against humanity on the grounds that they meet the definition of, quote, “deportation or forcible transfer of [a] population.”
Let’s also touch on the timeframe, because the report notes that there have been – there has been a broader effort by Russia to engage in forcible transfers of the Ukrainian population since 2014, and that over a thousand children have been taken from Crimea in a process that began even before the full-scale invasion of February 24th, 2022. And in terms of geographic scale, the report notes these children have been sent as far away as Siberia and the Russian far east. And while thousands of children have been taken from Ukraine, as of April 23rd of this year, only 361 have been returned to Ukraine. That leaves thousands of families still torn apart by Russia’s authorities and thousands of children traumatized.
The fact-finding team has concluded that the exact numbers are not possible to verify at this time given the lack of cooperation from Russia. And I know that many of you have questions about the numbers. But the report cannot quantify the exact numbers of children who have been relocated to Russia. I know the Ukrainian Government has put some numbers out there, but I would caution that these are likely a floor, and they have talked about 20,000 children, but there are likely more cases that are going to be discovered over time.
So let me speak to some of the ways these children get separated from their families and caregivers. One way is that they’re forcible separated from their parents or guardians by Russian authorities during the so-called filtration process. When parents are detained and get sent to the filtration camps, the children often get sent to different detention centers. Another way in which Russia has, to be blunt, stolen Ukrainian children from their families is by offering all-expenses-paid trips to children’s camps in places like occupied Crimea as well as in Russia and Belarus.
The report notes that parents who expressed reluctance to send their kids to such camps often faced implicit and at times explicit threats that this could lead to the revocation of their parental rights. Russia has then kept these children on false pretense and moved them around among various camps without the consent of their parents or guardians and without providing information on their whereabouts. For children that are adopted, this process often entails actually changing the child’s name and even their place of birth, which then makes, as the report notes, and I’m going to quote, makes it “impossible to ascertain” their true identities once they disappear into the Russian Federation.
Despite the obligation under international law, Russian authorities often fail to provide information to the Ukrainian Government or to international organizations on the whereabouts and status of these kids.
The OSCE’s fact-finding team shows that while Ukraine did what it could to prevent such illegal transfers from taking place – such as, for example, organizing busses to evacuate children from regions like Kherson, where the safety of the children was an issue – Russia often refused to allow humanitarian corridors to be established and took the children from these regions to Russia instead. Once inside Russia, the report notes that authorities violated the children’s rights even further by exposing them to pro-Russian information campaigns that often amounted to targeted re-education. This is what I meant when I referred earlier to a process of erasing their Ukrainian identity and replacing it with a Russian one.
Before turning to your questions, I’d like to end by saying that the United States is actively working within organizations like the OSCE, but also others, to document these crimes so as to ensure accountability. And we’re also looking at urgent steps, including through the OSCE’s Support Program for Ukraine, to help Ukraine catalogue and facilitate family reunification and the return of these children to their homes; and also looking at providing the kids and their families with the psychosocial support they will need once they’re returned to Ukraine.
So thanks very much, and with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that, Ambassador. Why don’t we go to a live question to start with, from Giorgi Popova (ph). Giorgi, you have the mike. Giorgi, can you hear us?
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
QUESTION: My name is Tatia. I think that there is some mistake.
MODERATOR: Oh, please go ahead.
QUESTION: I represent Mtavari TV from Georgia and I would like to ask you about the anti-Western (inaudible) messages of the Georgian Government. How damaging do you think these steps are on the path of European integration? Besides, our partners agree that most likely we will not be accepted by the European Union, one of the reasons being that there are political prisoners in our country. So what’s your opinion about the fact that President Saakashvili and political media manager Mr. Gvaramia (ph) are still kept in prison? Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, thank you very much for the question. Not exactly on the topic of today’s discussion, but happy to answer. Look, the United States has long supported Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, and we continue to do so. This is what the overwhelming majority of Georgians say they want in countless opinion polls time and again.
We are, however, frankly, quite concerned by some of the recent steps that we’ve seen taken. Now, some of these steps – like the recent introduction of legislation that would have imposed foreign agent status on civil society organizations – was subsequently withdrawn. I know the United States together with many of our European partners were deeply disturbed to see this sort of legislation which, frankly, in many ways mirrored Russian legislation that currently exists on the books. We were disheartened that this was introduced.
There are some other issues that are of concern. You’ve mentioned some of them regarding independent of the judiciary, regarding the media. But we are committed to working with our Georgian partners to strengthen their democracy and to facilitate their Euro-Atlantic path, which is the chosen path of the Georgian people. And so that is where our focus will be, and we are going to continue to engage in dialogue with Georgian authorities. I have a robust conversation with my Georgian colleague at the OSCE on all of these various issues.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll now go to a pre-submitted question from Petar Karaboev from DNEVNIK News in Bulgaria. Petar asks: “Ambassador Carpenter, you represent the U.S. in probably the only pan-European/Euro-Atlantic organization in which Russia is still a member. The OSCE was born out of the Helsinki process in the 1970s. Do you think the future security architecture in Europe will need a Helsinki 2? Will this – will need a Helsinki 2?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: So thank you for the question. I firmly believe that what the European security architecture needs right now above all is for all participating states, but especially Russia and Belarus, to implement their existing commitments. Most of the principles and commitments that the 57 members of the OSCE have agreed to are very far-reaching. When you look at the Helsinki Final Act, when you look at the Charter of Europe, you see commitments to democracy, to human rights, to sovereignty, to territorial integrity, to the inviolability of borders. I mean, these are basic commitments that are being violated brutally by the Russian Federation in Ukraine today.
So what we need is we need for implementation and respect for existing commitments. That’s a start. We don’t need to renegotiate commitments at this point. We don’t need to necessarily come up with new ones. We just need to have the participating states actually implement what they said they would, both in ’75 with the Helsinki Final Act, but also through numerous other decisions at the head-of-state level, including at the OSCE summit of heads of state in Istanbul in 1999 and in 2010 in Astana. All of those principles and commitments remain valid and should be implemented.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go to another submitted question from Vitaliy Syzov from Freedom Ukraine. He asks: “Ambassador Carpenter, I would like to ask how the OSCE could use its influence to get the children back? What instruments does it have to achieve this?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Yeah, thanks, Vitaliy. That’s an excellent question. We have to help Ukrainian authorities however we can to document and catalogue the instances in which children are taken from their parents and forcibly deported to either Russian-controlled territories in Ukraine or to the Russian Federation. It’s important that this issue be highlighted, that governments around the world be seized of this issue – because, as I just said, the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism mission to Ukraine has just categorized this forcible transfer of Ukrainian children as a grave breach of the Geneva Convention and a war crime and likely a crime against humanity.
So we have to take every action possible to help Ukrainian authorities to track the children. Now, this obviously raises questions of data security and other issues, but it is vital that we have a mechanism in place so that these children can be reunited with their families and brought back to their homes as soon as possible.
We also have to ensure that there is accountability for those who have perpetrated these crimes. That is a parallel process that needs to happen together with the urgent steps that need to happen today to bring these kids back, as I said, to their families and their homes.
And then, of course, the OSCE can also help with providing support for these children, for their families; I’m thinking of both financial support but also psychosocial support, because what they have been through is just absolutely horrific and no family should ever have to go through that.
So we have our work cut out for us. Obviously the OSCE does not have access to the Russian Federation, so we would look to organizations that are active in Russia to assist with this process. There is no more urgent need than for this abduction or kidnapping or stealing of children to cease. This is something that we should all be focused on with huge urgency.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go now to a live question – Pavlo Shtelmakh. Pavlo, you have the mike.
QUESTION: Hello, dear Ambassador Carpenter. I’m actually calling (inaudible) off. And I will be very brief in my question. Ukraine’s foreign minister welcomed the OSCE report on Ukrainian children and called it an “overwhelming evidence,” end of quote, for the Russian crimes against children and crimes of genocide. My question: Could in a legal way the OSCE support the creation of an international – future international tribunal, in a legal way, using this report as an evidence in that tribunal? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: So thank you for the question. And we absolutely intend for the information collected as part of this report but also as part of the ongoing accumulation of evidence that is being gathered by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to be available to other accountability mechanisms, including future tribunals.
I’ve said before that we find ourselves in a Nuremberg moment. The types of evidence that have been brought to light by this fact-finding mission on deported Ukrainian children is just – it’s repugnant. It’s horrific, and it does need to be forwarded to those bodies that will be able to seek accountability for these crimes. Because as the – as I’ve said before, the authors of the report found clear evidence of war crimes and likely crimes against humanity. There has to be accountability for these crimes.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go on to another question, this time from EURACTIV TV from Aurélie Pugnet. She asks: “With Russia deciding to block the adoption of the budgets for the organization, how do you see the way forward for on-the-ground activities and the organization’s – OSCE’s – credibility?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, look, the reality is that Russia is attacking the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It’s not – it’s obstructing the budget. That’s perhaps the least significant of the things it’s done. After all, it’s kidnapped three OSCE national staff members who used to work for the special monitoring mission. It has stolen OSCE vehicles. It is transgressing every single one of the Helsinki Final Act principles. And it is waging a war of aggression against Ukraine, which is perhaps the most important thing in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
So, look, what we have done over the course of the last year and a half at the OSCE is we’ve managed to work around Russia’s obstructionism, and I’m convinced that we’re going to do it on the budget as well.
So I’ll give you a couple examples of that. Russia vetoed the three OSCE field missions in Ukraine that existed prior to February 24th. And what we’ve done since then is we’ve established a Support Program for Ukraine that is funded through voluntary contributions and that Russia cannot veto. And this support program is already staffed up in Kyiv and will continue to deliver on the basis of Ukraine’s wartime needs. It will engage in things like humanitarian demining; as I mentioned, providing psychosocial support; mitigating the environmental impacts of the war; building capacity for accountability; and much more.
So we’ve found a way to work around Russia’s veto. Russia also tried to veto a human rights conference that the OSCE holds every year in Warsaw. We managed a way – to find a way to hold that conference despite Russia’s opposition. It was attended by over 1,100 civil society activists. It was hugely successful.
So, look, when Russia puts up roadblocks, there’s no more now trying to abide by rules of procedure that were formulated when we operated as a consensus organization. At this point, it is clear that Russia has no interest in abiding by not just the rules of procedure but by the fundamental principles on which we operate, and so we’re going to go around them. And I make no apologies for that. We will find ways to implement our commitments and to stand by the people of Ukraine. And in every other country where the OSCE has field missions, we’re going to make clear that we can deliver for the people.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go to another submitted question from Alex Knatkevich. He asks: “How do you see the role of the Lukashenka regime and the deportations of Ukrainian children? There is information about more than a thousand children being brought to Belarus from the occupied territories for recuperation?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Yes, thank you for the question. The Lukashenka regime is complicit in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. It’s provided its territory as a launching pad for attacks on Ukraine. It has facilitated Russian military operations, including the withdrawal of forces for refitting and re-equipping inside of Belarus. As you just mentioned, it has provided facilities for Ukrainian children who have been forcibly deported out of Ukraine into Belarus. And so on any number of different fronts, Belarus has proven that it is a coaggressor together with Russia in this war of aggression against Ukraine.
There are distinctions obviously to be made between Belarus and Russia: Belarus does not have active ground forces inside Ukraine, but it is complicit and there must be accountability for the actions of the Lukashenka regime as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another question that was submitted from Momchil Indjov from a media outlet in Bulgaria. He asks: “Your Excellency, does the U.S. have information if some of the deported children are from ethnic minorities in Ukraine? If so, could you please provide some details?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: So thank you for the question. I can’t give you a breakdown of how many of the 20,000 reported forcibly deported children that at least Ukrainian authorities have documented – how many of them are members of ethnic minorities. Now, remember what I said earlier: that 20,000 figure which comes from the Ukrainian Government is likely a floor. As we look into these cases of children who have been forcibly deported across the border, it is likely that the true figure is much, much higher once all of the information is made available. And currently there is no access for international organizations like the OSCE to the Russian Federation itself.
But as I noted earlier, at least a thousand children – at least a thousand children – have been deported from Crimea, occupied Crimea, which is of course Ukrainian territory, to the Russian Federation. I don’t know how many of those may have been Crimean Tatars. Obviously they are a sizeable minority and titular national minority in Crimea. But suffice it to say that it is certain that at least some of the children who have been transferred to Russia or to Russian-controlled territory are from ethnic minorities.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We’ll go now to a live question – Sophie Vardiashvili. Sophie, you have the microphone. Sophie, can you hear us?
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: You’re muted.
MODERATOR: Well, let’s go to another pre-submitted question – the last pre-submitted question we have. Maybe we can get back to Sophie in a second. It’s from Maarten Rabaey from De Morgen in Belgium. He asks: “What can and should the OSCE do in mediating the safe and unconditional return of the deported Ukrainian children? Should the international community assist in setting up a DNA database of relatives of the missing children, hence looking forward to a post-war reunification of those who might not be returned during the war?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, the OSCE is not going to do anything without the support and the blessing of the Ukrainian Government. These are Ukrainian children and the Ukrainian Government is tracking their forcible deportation. I have spoken personally with the Ukrainian ombudsman, Mr. Lubinets, who is – published – has published and will continue to publish reports on this issue as information comes into his office. There are multiple actors within the Ukrainian Government, within their interagency that are focused on this issue; obviously, the ministry of interior but also other bodies. And so the OSCE can assist in building capacity once it takes its cue from the Ukrainian Government.
We are happy to look into launching programs that will facilitate the return of these children. It’s imperative that it happen as soon as possible and that it happen without preconditions. These children need to be returned to their families, they need to be returned to their homes immediately. And it is – as I said earlier, it is absolutely repugnant that in many cases they are – there is a concerted effort to strip these children of their Ukrainian identity, giving them new names, giving them new birth certificates, often changing the place of birth as well. There is a sense of urgency here – a huge sense of urgency, as I said earlier. And the faster we can work with all the actors who could assist —
MODERATOR: Ambassador, I think you got muted.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Oh, I’m sorry. Did I?
MODERATOR: You’re back now.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Okay. How much of that was – do I need to repeat the entire answer or —
MODERATOR: No, no, no. You – it was just the —
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Okay.
MODERATOR: — last two seconds.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: All right.
MODERATOR: Yeah. Sophie, can we go back to you to see if we have a microphone? It does not look that way, so we will go ahead and wrap up the call. Ambassador, can I turn it back to you for any closing thoughts?
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Yeah, I’ll just be very brief. It is important that international organizations like the OSCE but also our partners like the UN Commission of Inquiry continue to shine a light and that the media continue to cover this issue of children who have been forcibly transferred against their will, often against their family’s will, to Russian-controlled territory and to the Russian Federation. What is happening now is an experiment in social reengineering that is just ghastly in terms of its implications.
And as the experts from OSCE mission concluded, these are war crimes. These are violations of international humanitarian law as well as international human rights law. They’re violations of the Geneva Convention. And we have to continue to shine a light on this. We have to act. We have to try to – as I said earlier, we have to try to reunite these children with their families as soon as possible. There are many children and parents who are in grief today because they are separated against their will. And this is going to take a very concerted effort on the part of multiple actors to support the reunification of these kids with their families. Thanks very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. And thanks so much for taking the time to join us today and to speak about such an important topic. Shortly, we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and as always, you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thank you again for your participation, and we hope you can join us again in the near future for another press briefing. This ends today’s briefing.
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