Warsaw Human Dimension Conference Plenary Session 8: Humanitarian Issues

Warsaw Human Dimension Conference Plenary Session 8: Humanitarian Issues

Trafficking in Human Beings; Humanitarian Issues, Including in the Context of Armed Conflict; Freedom of Movement; Refugees and Displaced Persons; Persons at Risk of Displacement

As prepared for delivery by Michael G. Kozak,
Head of Delegation
Warsaw, October 12, 2023

Like most of the world, the United States’ public and officials have been horrified by the mounting reports of atrocities and abuses committed by members of Russia’s forces in Ukraine including executions of civilians, torture, and sexual violence.  Bomb and missile attacks across Ukraine have created a humanitarian crisis.  Residential buildings, schools, places of worship, and cultural heritage sites as well as critical infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants and grain facilities, have been damaged or destroyed.  Russia’s forces continue to block and impede the work of humanitarian actors.  

Russia’s brutal and unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine drove millions to flee their homes— a large share of whom were welcomed by the government and people here in Poland.  Today there are over six million refugees living outside Ukraine and over five million displaced persons within the country.  To help meet their humanitarian needs for food, water, shelter, and livelihoods, and to protect the most vulnerable among them, the United States has provided nearly $2.9 billion in assistance both inside Ukraine and in the region since February 2022. Russia’s forces, however, continue to block access for humanitarian actors to deliver basic assistance to civilians on the frontline and in Russia-occupied areas of Ukraine.  Even in the wake of the Kakhovka dam explosion, Russia refused to allow delivery of assistance to affected populations in the areas it occupied.  Allowing humanitarian access is not a political request, it is a humanitarian imperative.   

The United States has determined that, in Russia’s war against Ukraine, members of Russia’s forces and other Russian officials have committed crimes against humanity; members of Russia’s forces have also committed war crimes.  There can be no impunity for heinous atrocity crimes.  Many of our countries are supportive of international investigations and accountability mechanisms and coordinating to assist Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General in the investigation and prosecution of atrocity crimes in Ukraine.  We need to step up these efforts and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. 

Meanwhile, the Lukashenka regime in Belarus, in return for Putin’s backing in repressing its own people, has allowed Russia’s military full use of its territory, prosecuted opponents of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine as extremists, and hosted members of the Wagner Group despite Wagner’s numerous atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and a number of African countries.

The United States and our Allies and partners have implemented sanctions, export controls, visa restrictions and other measures intended to impose a stiff cost on, and promote accountability for, individuals and entities in Russia, Belarus and elsewhere that enable the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine.  

I will focus here on some of the cruelest abuses that members of Russia’s forces and other Russian officials are committing in Ukraine – the forcible transfer of Ukraine’s children within occupied parts of Ukraine and their deportation to Russia. 

Russia’s forcible relocation of children is the subject of an OSCE Moscow Mechanism Expert Mission report released last May.  The report found that these acts “constitute violations of International Humanitarian Law, and in certain cases amount to grave breaches of the Geneva Convention IV and war crimes.” 

The report also found that “the Russian Federation does not take any steps to actively promote the return of Ukrainian children.  Rather, it creates various obstacles for families seeking to get their children back.”  Moreover, the Report found that, while in Russia’s so-called care, Ukraine’s children are “exposed to pro-Russian -education campaigns often amounting to targeted re-education.”

Not only is the Kremlin waging a war to subjugate the sovereign, democratic state of Ukraine while denying its distinct identity and history; by taking Ukraine’s children and “Russifying” them, Russia is trying to steal Ukraine’s future. 

There have also been credible reports that Ukraine’s children have been transferred to Belarus with the approval of the Lukashenka regime.  Russia has refused to cooperate with international humanitarian groups or even to provide a list of names or locations of Ukraine’s children held in Russia. 

We call on Russia’s government to stop the forcible transfers and deportations of Ukraine’s children and return those forcibly relocated to their families or legal guardians.  Russia must provide lists of Ukraine’s forcibly relocated children and grant access for independent observers.

Many of Ukraine’s children have witnessed unimaginable violence and live in constant fear and uncertainty about the future.  We must expand our support for organizations treating this immense trauma.  The longer trauma stays untreated the deeper it goes and the harder it is to overcome.  

Refugees and displaced persons, including particularly vulnerable populations such as women, children, GBV survivors, LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, and stateless persons, who have fled Russia’s war against Ukraine, are highly vulnerable to human trafficking.  Ninety percent of the refugees from Ukraine are women and children.  Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there were reports of traffickers targeting refugees at border areas, train stations, and refugee centers trying to lure refugees with promises of accommodation, onward transportation, or employment, sometimes masquerading as volunteers providing assistance.  More recently, traffickers have been using online methods such as social media and online advertising to lure individuals for sex trafficking or forced labor abroad.  Even for those individuals displaced within Ukraine, Russia’s war and its economic impacts heighten their vulnerability to trafficking.  Experts assess the risk of human trafficking will likely continue to grow as the war continues and individuals’ resources deplete.

An OSCE/ODIHR survey found that since leaving Ukraine, many women refugees: had experienced sexual harassment; received requests for sexual favors, proposals to work in the commercial sex industry or to produce pornographic materials; or suffered sexual violence.

Many European governments conducted extensive awareness-raising campaigns, provided assistance to potential trafficking victims, or took other actions to prevent trafficking.  However, given the high risks, all governments must remain vigilant and do more to identify and protect victims.  

The United States supports OSCE’s work to address these issues, including the updated National Referral Mechanism handbook that takes a trauma-informed, victim-centered, and age-appropriate approach, as well as input from the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC). 

With regard to the Caucasus region, one hundred thousand ethnic Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia. This situation stems from Azerbaijan’s September 19-20 military operation and nine-month blockage of the Lachin corridor that led to dire humanitarian conditions.  We again call for humanitarian access to Nagorno-Karabakh and a dedicated, independent, international monitoring mission to provide transparency and reassurance to protect the rights and security of ethnic Armenians — particularly those who may wish to return.  Azerbaijan must comply with international law, including on conduct of hostilities, humane treatment of combatants, and protection of civilians and cultural sites.