Human rights advisor to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy speaks at the Jackson School
Alona Verbytska, human rights advisor to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke on Wednesday about alleged war crimes in Russian-occupied territories.
Esma Okutan, Contributing Reporter
Alona Verbytska characterized the war in Ukraine as “genocide” in a speech on campus on Wednesday.
Verbytska, human rights advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was joined by the director of Genocide Studies Program David Simon to discuss alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The lecture was organized by the Genocide Studies Program at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and took place at the Jackson School of Global Affairs on March 8. A translator assisted the conversation and the guests had the opportunity to ask Verbytska questions after her speech.
“Right now there are more than 70,000 cases that are open about crimes committed by the Russian military,” Verbytska said at the event. “We look at those cases individually, but when we put them all together, that starts looking like genocide.”
Verbytska talked about the Russian destruction of civilian infrastructure, such as the bombing of Ukrainian electricity supply in the cold days of November and December, as a significant sign of intentional civil harm.
She mentioned the destruction of Ukrainian agriculture and how food shortages have led to starvation, adding that Russia is blocking humanitarian aid in occupied territories.
“The Ukrainian government doesn’t have access to check what is going on there,” Verbytska said. “There is no international agency that is allowed to work in occupied territories including the Red Cross… and now they are also not allowed to visit prisoners of war camps… There is already evidence of violation of Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners.”
Verbytska also discussed the relocation and relocation of Ukrainian children by Russian forces.
A report published by YSPH in February documented the relocation of 6,000 children from Ukraine and their transfer into 43 Russian re-education camps, adding that the true number of children and camps is likely “significantly higher.” Verbytska characterized this as a Russian effort to not only destroy the current generation but also the future generations of Ukraine.
“In some internal communication in Russia between different committees of the Russian government, they said that they took 307,000 kids from Ukraine to Russia,” Verbytska said. “This is a number coming from the Russians themselves.”
Verbytska explained that the Ukrainian government has only been able to identify 16,000 of those children so far, because the Russian government hides the real names of the abducted children under “secrecy of adoption.” There is also no information on where the identified children are being sent by Russian authorities.
“When you have 70,000 cases [of war crimes], the intent to destroy could either come from Moscow or happen locally, that is to say it could be a local commander who is interpreting some military effort in the terms of destroying people,” Simon asked Verbytska. “What is the legal strategy to implicate local versus national architects of these harms?”
Verbytska explained that she is working with prosecutors in Ukraine and that chains of command are being investigated for all cases of war crimes.
Simon also pointed out the Russian propaganda on “de-Ukrainization,” and characterized the denial of the existence of Ukrainian identity, as shown by the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families, as a genocidal effort.
Lucio Gussetti, senior manager of the European Union and a visiting fellow at the MacMillan Center who also attended the event, commented on this Russian effort of de-Ukrainization and what it means for Ukraine’s allies in the West.
“We have to be very careful as supporters of Ukraine because that policy is translated also in terms of having privileged access in debates for peace with countries that are not involved in the conflict,” Gussetti said. “The Russians are trying systematically to discuss this directly with the US, for example, without Ukrainian presence. There is an obligation on our side in supporting Ukraine to be very careful in the ways we accept the privilege of direct debates with Russians without the presence of Ukraine.”
Verbytska agreed that Ukraine is being excluded by the Russians from diplomatic discussions in an effort to deny its identity, but said that its allies are continuing to consult Ukraine on matters of international cooperation and peace.
Feb. 24 marked one year since the war in Ukraine began.