WASHINGTON – The Biden administration called on Russia to immediately release civilians that it says were forcibly deported from Ukraine, an accusation that would classify as a war crime.
“The unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and is a war crime,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in a statement referencing a U.N. agreement to which Russia is a signatory.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions define international legal standards and protections for humanitarian treatment during wartime and explicitly prohibit mass forced transfers of civilians.
Blinken said the U.S. suspects that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, have been detained and deported from their homes to Russia.
“Russian authorities must release those detained and allow Ukrainian citizens forcibly removed or coerced into leaving their country the ability to promptly and safely return home,” Blinken wrote.
The nation’s top diplomat also called on Moscow to allow third-party observers into so-called Russian “filtration camps.”
The filtration camps, which have been previously described as large makeshift tents, are initial reception areas where deported Ukrainians are photographed, fingerprinted, stripped, forced to turn over their mobile phones, passwords as well as identification, and then interrogated and sometimes tortured by Russian authorities.
Blinken accused Moscow of ordering the “disappearance” of thousands of Ukrainian civilians who do not pass the dehumanizing “filtration” process of the deportation procedure.
“Those detained or filtered out include Ukrainians deemed threatening because of their potential affiliation with the Ukrainian army, territorial defense forces, media, government, and civil society groups,” Blinken wrote.
He also said that the Kremlin’s filtration program appears to have been premeditated and mirrors similar operations carried out by Russian forces during other conflicts, including in Chechnya.
Blinken also outlined “mounting” evidence of Russian forces deliberately separating Ukrainian children from their parents, abducting Ukrainian children from orphanages, confiscating Ukrainian passports and issuing Russian passports for what is an “apparent effort to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned last week that her office has gathered a staggering amount of evidence that indicates Russian forces have carried out unlawful killings and summary executions of Ukrainians.
Bachelet said that U.N. investigators have recovered more than 1,200 civilian bodies from Kyiv and that her office is working to corroborate more than 300 allegations of killings by Russian forces in situations that were not linked to active fighting.
Earlier this year, the U.N. voted to strip Russia of its membership in the Human Rights Council following accusations that Russian troops tortured and killed Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, a suburb near Kyiv.
The bodies were discovered after Moscow withdrew its troops from Bucha. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the aftermath, which he saw firsthand on Monday, as a “genocide” and accused Russia of war crimes. Similar reports of what unfolded in Bucha have since emerged in cities throughout Ukraine.
The Kremlin has previously described its military actions in Ukraine as a “special operation” and has denied all claims that its forces target and kill civilians.