Belarus Red Cross says it helped deport Ukrainian children to Belarus

The head of the Belarusian Red Cross has sparked an international outcry with his announcement that the organization is involved in the relocation of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied areas to Belarus, a stark admission that potentially could make the group complicit in what Ukraine says is a war crime.

Dzmitry Shautsou, the chief of the Belarusian branch of the Red Cross, said in an interview with a state TV channel Belarus 1 that the organization was bringing Ukrainian children to Belarus for “rehabilitation,” according to a report about the interview by the independent Belsat TV.

“When they accused the Republic of Belarus of kidnapping children who come to us for rehabilitation – frankly speaking, the Belarusian Red Cross has been, and is, and will be actively involved in this,” Shautsou said.

Ukraine has long accused Russia of forcibly deporting Ukrainian children from occupied areas. Some Russian officials have admitted the practice, publicly boasting about their efforts to bring children to Russia, place them in Russian families and, in some cases, give them Russian passports.

But Shautsou’s statement was the first time the Belarus Red Cross has admitted taking part in the deportations. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Red Cross umbrella organization, expressed “grave concern” and called for the practice to stop.

Under international agreements, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the deportation of a civilian population is considered a war crime and forcible transfers of children of one group to another group amount to genocide.

It is unclear how many Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia or Belarus since the beginning of the war. Official numbers from the Ukrainian government show that almost 20,000 how been deported or forcibly displaced, and 1,000 are missing, but the government says the numbers could be much higher.

Shautsou described the children as coming to Belarus “to have a rest,” adding: “We try to do everything for them to make them feel at home. So that they would not need anything. And most importantly, they were surrounded by love.”

The Belarus 1 report showed Shautsou visited Russia-occupied areas in eastern Ukraine, including the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, while wearing military clothes adorned with the letter Z, according to Belsat TV. The letter has become a pro-war symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Shautsou’s trip and admission led to fierce criticism from Ukraine and the international community.

“The extraordinary circumstances of this visit, including the use of a symbol associated with one of the parties to the international armed conflict in Ukraine, implicate the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement,” the IFRC said in a statement, adding that it had referred the case to its independent investigating committee.

“We have contacted the Belarus Red Cross to express our grave concern and to stop any similar activity in the future,” the statement said, adding that “actions by any of our member national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies in contradiction with our humanitarian mission” are “taken extremely seriously.”

The Ukrainian branch of the Red Cross has called for the IFRC to denounce the Belarus Red Cross’ involvement in the deportations. “We implore them to carefully consider the matter of excluding the Belarus Red Cross from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement,” the group said in a statement.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that “all those responsible for stealing Ukrainian children must be held to account.”

“I call on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant for Dzmitry Shautsou, who has publicly confessed to the crime of unlawful deportation of children from occupied areas of Ukraine,” he said on Twitter.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia.

The Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Putin. He has allowed Russian troops to use Belarus as a staging ground for their full-scale invasion of Ukraine Russia launched in February 2022. He has since agreed to have Russia place its tactical nuclear weapons into the territory of Belarus. Most recently, he provided a safe haven for the Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin after the mercenary group’s short-lived mutiny in Russia last month.

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