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Russian textbooks delivered by the occupying authorities to a school in Borova, in Ukraine's Kharkivska region. Photo taken November 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch
  • Russian authorities are imposing the Russian curriculum and Kremlin propaganda in Ukrainian schools in occupied areas, and have retaliated against school workers if they refuse to implement the imposed Russian curriculum.
  • Russia should cease all measures to Russify Ukraine’s education system; Ukrainian authorities and foreign donors should work with civil society to keep children connected to learning under occupation or during displacement.
  • The laws of war require an occupying power to restore services in the occupied territory but prohibit it from imposing its own laws, including on education. 

(Kyiv, June 20, 2024) – Russian authorities are suppressing the Ukrainian language and curriculum, imposing the Russian curriculum, anti-Ukrainian propaganda, and Russian as the language of instruction in schools in areas of Ukraine that Russia is occupying, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. These measures violate the laws of armed conflict, which prohibit an occupying power from making unnecessary changes to laws in the occupied territory, as well as international human rights standards on the right to education. 

The 66-page report “Education under Occupation: Forced Russification of the School System in Occupied Ukrainian Territories,” documents violations of international law by the Russian authorities in relation to the right to education in formerly occupied areas of Ukraine’s Kharkivska region, and other regions that remain under Russian occupation. Russian authorities have forced changes to the curriculum and retaliated against school staff who refused to make such changes with threats, detention, and even torture. Human Rights Watch also found that occupying authorities threatened parents whose children were learning the Ukrainian curriculum online.

“Russia should stop denying Ukrainian children their right to education as guaranteed to them under international law,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “It should immediately cease attempts to Russify the education system and to carry out political indoctrination in occupied territories of Ukraine.” 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 educators, school staff, and other officials in Kharkivska region after Russian forces left the area in September 2022, and interviewed teachers who had been displaced or escaped from the areas of Khersonska, Zaporizka, Donetska, and Luhanska regions that are currently under occupation. 

Ukrainian experts estimate that one million school-age Ukrainian children remain in Russian-occupied territory. Data that the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science provided Human Rights Watch indicate that more than 62,400 children living in occupied areas continue to study in Ukrainian secondary education institutions remotely.

The laws of war require an occupying power to restore public order and services in the occupied territory, including to facilitate the proper education of children, but it must respect the laws in force in the territory before the occupation, and is prohibited from imposing its own laws, including laws on education. 

A page from a Russian secondary school history textbook left behind in a school in Borova, Kharkivska region, photographed in November 2022. The text glorifies the “return of Crimea,” which Russia has occupied since 2014.  © 2022 Human Rights Watch

The Russian school curriculum imposed in occupied areas of Ukraine includes history textbooks that justify Russia’s invasion, portrays Ukraine under its current government as a “neo-Nazi state,” and strictly limits instruction in the Ukrainian language. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children’s right to an education that develops respect for the child’s “own cultural identity, language and values,” as well as the “national values” of the child’s country of origin. Russia’s imposition of changes to education in occupied territories also violates other international human rights standards, including the prohibition against propaganda for war, the child’s right to mother-tongue education, and parents’ right of choice regarding their children’s education. 

Ukrainian children under occupation also receive military training as part of the school curriculum. The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reported that Russian authorities require secondary schools in occupied Ukrainian territory to share the names of students ages 18 and older, whom the Russian authorities deem eligible to be drafted into the Russian armed forces. 

Human Rights Watch found that occupying authorities retaliate against anyone, including in schools, who criticizes the invasion. Russian authorities and their proxies punished distance learning or teaching of the Ukrainian curriculum and threatened parents with fines, loss of custody of their children, and detention if they did not enroll their children in “Russian” schools, or if their children studied the Ukrainian curriculum remotely. 

Occupying authorities also used coercion, detention, ill-treatment, and torture to pressure Ukrainian teachers to work with them or to hand over students’ files and other school data. The report documents the week-long detention, in dire conditions, of a school principal from Borivske village in Kharkivska region, whom security officers beat repeatedly for refusing to hand over information about his school.

Russian occupying authorities detained Ukrainians, including education staff, in this outdoor cell at the police station in Kupiansk, Kharkivska region, photographed on November 7, 2022.  © 2022 Human Rights Watch

In addition to the occupying authorities’ specific abuses, Russia’s full-scale invasion has placed a range of pressures on Ukraine’s education system, such as barriers to online learning, the burgeoning need for mental health support for students and teachers, and a negative impact on students with disabilities. 

The report also documents the Ukrainian authorities’ problematic use of the criminal offence of “collaboration” against Ukrainian education staff who worked under Russian occupation, even though some teachers had to work under occupation to survive. 

A letter from the Education Ministry to the heads of educational institutions and other officials in September 2022, which Human Rights Watch examined, warned educational workers that working in any managerial, teaching, or research position under the occupying authorities is “categorically unacceptable” and warrants a “severe” criminal penalty, even though occupying authorities used threats and violence to coerce educators to work in schools. 

The laws of war do not directly address wartime collaboration but prohibit occupying forces from exercising coercion against civilians who are not their own nationals, anticipating occupying forces’ efforts to do so. They also require the occupying power to facilitate the proper working of institutions dedicated to the education of children, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities. 

Given the context of occupation and teachers’ responsibilities to educate children, Human Rights Watch believes Ukrainian authorities should not penalize teachers in occupied territories solely for providing education to children under the Russian curriculum, and should revise their overly broad view of the offense of collaboration.

Ukrainian authorities and foreign donors should work with Ukrainian civil society groups to find ways to keep children connected to learning under occupation or during displacement by Russian forces, Human Rights Watch said.

“Russian authorities should ensure that education in occupied territories of Ukraine follows Ukrainian curricula and Ukrainian law,” Van Esveld said. “They should hold to account all occupation officials responsible for harassing, ill-treating, and putting undue pressure on Ukrainian education workers, students, and parents.”

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