– in the House of Commons at 2:48 pm on 25th May 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
believes that the Holodomor was a genocide against the Ukrainian people.
The motion stands in my name and that of Stewart Malcolm McDonald, but I am grateful to the many right hon. and hon. Members from five different parties who supported the application for a debate. I am also grateful to the Government for allowing time today to debate this important issue in the Chamber. Before I move to the substance of the debate, I acknowledge the presence of His Excellency Mr Vadym Prystaiko, the ambassador of Ukraine to the UK, and his colleague.
Today, right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity to recognise the holodomor officially as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. His Majesty’s Government’s long-standing policy is not to recognise a genocide unless a competent court has declared it as such, which is very unlikely in relation to a series of events that took place 90 years ago, so this is likely to be the only chance we have for the UK to be added to the ever-growing list of countries that recognise the atrocities committed by Stalin’s USSR in Ukraine in 1932-33 for what they were: a genocide.
Ninety years ago, in the spring of 1933, millions of Ukrainians starved to death. However, there was no natural famine in Ukraine. There was plenty of grain to go around, but it was all subjected to Moscow’s impossibly high grain tariffs. Moscow then exported millions of tonnes of grain to the west while Ukrainians were dying in Stalin’s forced famine. The word “holodomor” means to inflict death by hunger, and that is exactly what the USSR did in Ukraine. I will come to the terrible details of the famine, but, in discussing genocide, it is important also to understand the context and the motivations of the USSR’s leadership in Moscow.
While holodomor means “death by hunger,” the term has come to refer to the entire Stalinist campaign to destroy Ukrainian identity and nationalism at the end of the 1920s, leading to the forced famine of 1932-33. Once Stalin had consolidated his power as party leader by the end of the 1920s, he began to impose much harsher controls on independence, including banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the arrest, deportation and execution of Ukrainian nationalists and the cultural elite. Intellectuals, writers and artists committed suicide rather than be deported to Russia. Wholesale agricultural collectivisation took place from 1929, while wealthy peasants had their property taken away. By the mid-1930s, 100,000 such families had been deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan.
I turn to the terrible details of the famine, which was the final piece of Stalin’s attempt to destroy the Ukrainian nation and people. Stalin was aware—we have seen this demonstrated so many times over the past year or so of the war—that the Ukrainian national spirit and identity reside strongly in the rural and agricultural communities across the country. In response to resistance to agricultural collectivisation in 1932-33, Stalin’s Government imposed impossibly high grain requisition quotas, which had to be satisfied before any grain could be kept by the local population. In 1932, not a single Ukrainian village met the quota assigned to it. Anyone who kept grain destined for Russia was executed by firing squad. Special police roamed the countryside, searching homes and summarily executing those found to have stored food, however small the amount. Men, women and children starved to death in their villages. But this was not a famine; there was enough grain to feed the entire population comfortably. The grain was exported to Russia and Ukrainians were prevented from escaping their country.
At the height of the famine, 25,000 people died of starvation every day, including children who were obviously too small to feed themselves. Some tried to commit suicide to escape the horror of starving to death. Gareth Jones, a well-known journalist, wrote:
“I walked…through villages and 12 collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread;
we are dying’”.
Those who refused to steal or to leave died of hunger. Those who tried to steal were shot. Those who tried to leave were returned to their villages to face the same impossible choice. Villages turned to cannibalism to survive. The dead were unburied and the sick untended. Those are difficult details for us to hear.
I attended the holodomor memorial in Kyiv with the hon. Lady. All the things she describes are laid out in great detail there. I was so overcome with emotion I could stay for only 10 minutes, although the visit was over an hour. It is unbelievable that we have not recognised it as a genocide. It is so very clearly a genocide. In the United Kingdom we need to review how we define genocide if we cannot define the holodomor as one.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which shows that recognising the genocide has cross-party support. We are all concerned about that.
The exact number of victims is unknown because the Soviet Union refused to allow reporting of the famine, but it is estimated that between 7 million and as many as 10 million people died in Ukraine itself, with more in the neighbouring Soviet states. There was no natural famine in Ukraine, as I said, yet millions died from starvation due to Stalin’s policies. The cultural elite were deported, Ukrainian culture and language suppressed, and rural communities broken. The Russians closed their Ukrainian borders and refused to send aid, while simultaneously selling millions of tonnes of grain to the west. In the aftermath of the holodomor, the Soviet leadership resettled some of the decimated villages with ethnically Russian communities, aiming to eradicate Ukrainian independent identity. All of that is very clear evidence that the holodomor meets the conditions required for genocide.
Raphael Lemkin, the man who defined genocide, put it very clearly in a speech at the 20th commemoration of the holodomor in New York City in 1953. He described it as
“perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification—the destruction of the Ukrainian nation”.
He recognised that there were no attempts at “complete annihilation”, as had taken place in the holocaust. However, as he says, in an incredibly powerful quote which rings true to this day, given what is happening in Ukraine now:
“And yet, if the Soviet program succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priests and the peasants can be eliminated, Ukraine will be as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation rather than a mass of people”.
I have no doubt that the holodomor amounted to genocide, an attempt by Stalin to destroy the Ukrainian people.
I will now turn to why I believe the House should agree to the motion. As a matter of principle, we as a country should recognise genocides whenever and wherever they occur. The crime of genocide is rightfully seen as one of the worst atrocities that can ever take place. All countries should identify it and stand against it in the strongest terms. The UK Government have constrained themselves by recognising only those genocides that have been declared as such by a competent court. One of the biggest challenges in obtaining a court ruling is that, in international law, referrals often need the consent of the states involved. This process is even more difficult when the successor state to the accused, the Russian Federation, is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Therefore, irrespective of the weight of evidence that the holodomor was a genocide, it is incredibly unlikely that we will ever see the case tried by a competent court.
In the absence of official Government recognition, today’s substantive motion will constitute a resolution of the House of Commons specifically designating the holodomor as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. I have often been asked, “Why now?” That is a perfectly reasonable question, 90 years after the event, but I believe the House of Commons should recognise the holodomor as a genocide. After all, those who survived it have now died. In the two previous cases where the House has recognised a genocide, they were ongoing, so the resolution of the House could help to serve as a warning to the perpetrator that they would not get away with it.
The memory of historical events, particularly historical trauma, is fundamental to national identities. Through my work on the International Development Committee, I have been closely involved in hearings where we analysed the impact of Srebrenica and the importance of its recognition on Bosnian national identity today. I have also visited Rwanda on multiple occasions and have heard the same argument. As Alex Sobel said, we visited Ukraine earlier this year and went to the holocaust memorial centre, which is a moving place to go and a reminder of the worst periods of Ukraine in living memory—until now.
The importance to Ukrainians of recognising the holodomor is shown by the fact that the Ukrainian Parliament has criminalised holodomor denial in Ukraine. That matters not just to victims but to the perpetrators, who need to be reminded that they cannot get away with it. The House should act now because the holodomor is still relevant both to Ukraine and to Russia, and to the ongoing maintenance of international legal norms. The second reason for acting now is the situation that hangs over this whole debate: the war in Ukraine.
In the current war in Ukraine, as I heard during my visit to Kyiv in February, the Russians have been accused of crimes against humanity. We were shown cars burnt out and riddled with bullet holes, where Russians had gunned down civilians trying to escape their homes. We must give confidence to the Ukrainian Government and the international legal order that the UK Government —or at least the UK Parliament—will not stand for human rights abuses and war crimes. Putin has said that his current intention is to eradicate the whole concept of Ukraine—very like Stalin’s. That potentially falls within the definition of genocide. I believe that international order should act, first to ensure he is not able to carry out his threat and secondly, to hold him to account for his intention.
Recognition of the holodomor is important for the Ukrainians living in Ukraine, for Ukrainian refugees in this country and for descendants of Ukrainians living in this country who came here many years ago, and who wish for it to be recognised. It is so important that we do that, because we are beginning to become an outlier. Australia, Canada, Ireland and Brazil have all officially recognised the holodomor as a genocide. Until recently, both Germany and the USA were in a similar position to the UK, as their Governments did not recognise a genocide unless it had been confirmed by an international court. However, since the Russian invasion, in an attempt to show their support, both countries have passed resolutions in the Bundestag and in Congress respectively, recognising the genocide at a parliamentary level.
In March, the French lower house, the National Assembly, officially recognised the holodomor, and the Senate followed suit last week. At the turn of 2023, Bulgaria, Belgium and Iceland joined the ranks of countries officially recognising the holodomor. On Tuesday, the Slovenian Parliament declared the holodomor a genocide. In coming months, the Spanish Parliament and the Parliament of the Netherlands will have the opportunity to do so.
Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is more important than ever for the UK to show our support, to deter Russia from any potential thoughts of genocide, to reassure Ukraine that the international legal order will hold anyone who commits crimes to account, and to show solidarity with our recently greatly increased Ukrainian communities in the UK, in memory of the terrible tragedy.
I would like to finish by reiterating my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to secure this debate, which is incredibly important for every single Member across the House and, as I said, the Ukrainian communities in all our constituencies.
The holodomor was, to my mind and to paraphrase Raphael Lemkin, the archetypal genocide. The USSR murdered millions of Ukrainians, using policies of forced starvation and forced migration, reminiscent of what is going on in Ukraine today. Stalin in the 1930s, like Putin today, was aiming to destroy the nation of Ukraine and the concept of Ukrainian identity, so I hope that today we will vote to recognise the holodomor as a genocide. Then we can send a clear message to Putin, and to the world, that the UK Parliament stands with Ukraine and that war crimes, either historical or current, will not be tolerated.
I commend Mrs Latham for securing this important debate.
I start with the recent testimonies of Petro Mohalat and Oleksandra Zaharova, two Ukrainians who survived the holodomor as children. They said:
“There was a brigade with pitchforks who came to every house searching for bread. I was five at that time. We locked the door and all the windows but they used crowbars to come inside. I saw people who died. They made a pit and threw all the bodies there. My father went to Western Ukraine, taking everything good from our home to exchange for food, but he got nothing. ”
Some 90 years on, the memories of those dark days live on, as does the campaign for the world to recognise the great famine for what it was: a genocide. It is estimated that the holomodor claimed the lives of at least 4 million people—around one in eight of the Ukrainian population. Entire villages perished as Soviet authorities knowingly set unmeetable grain quotas, raided homes for any hidden food to confiscate and banned internal travel to stop people leaving.
The mass starvation was no accident. Contrary to propaganda, it was not just the result of drought or bureaucratic mismanagement—it was an act of mass murder, a calamity deliberately inflicted on a nation by an imperialist, totalitarian regime. It was engineered to crush Ukraine’s resistance, and it coincided with Stalin’s campaign of Russification of suppressing Ukrainian culture and identity, reversing the earlier Bolshevik policy of encouraging it. The holodomor was a great crime against humanity, and its impact has been felt in Ukraine and by the Ukrainian diaspora for generations.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that for many communities around the country, such as the Ukrainian community in Reading, this is still a very live issue and many people are deeply concerned about this debate?
I completely agree with the points made by my hon. Friend. I know he has been working closely with the Ukrainian centre in Reading.
What further deepened that immense trauma was the state-enforced silence that followed. For more than half a century, those who survived the great famine and saw their loved ones die of hunger were not allowed to openly discuss the horrors they had been through. Under Stalin’s rule, even mentioning the famine carried the risk of being sent to a gulag or executed.
Evidence of the scale and true causes of the tragedy were concealed and fabricated. Even the statisticians who conducted the national census, which showed a dramatic population decline, were killed, and the data was manipulated to hide the number of victims. That was a systemic suppression of historical memory—the collective gaslighting of a nation. While the archives have since been opened and the truth is now easier to access, Putin’s regime has continued with a policy of downplaying the seriousness of this atrocity and denying its genocidal nature.
Agnieszka Holland’s film “Mr Jones” tells the real-life story of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who risked his life to inform the world about the holodomor, and who was murdered a few years later. In 2021, a screening of the film in Moscow, organised by a human rights non-governmental organisation, was interrupted by a group of masked men who stormed the venue. When the police arrived, they shut down the screening, locked the doors and spent hours interrogating the audience, rather than the mob who came to disrupt it. Last year, in Mariupol, Russian occupiers used a crane to dismantle a holodomor memorial.
It would be impossible to have this debate without mentioning the current context in which Ukraine is fighting yet another attempt to violently subjugate it. Let us send a clear message that we see and understand Ukraine’s struggle against Russian imperialism, not just over the past 15 months or since 2014, but across centuries. While the oldest survivors of the holodomor are still alive, let us honour their decades-long battle for truth and justice. Let us join 28 countries around the world, and the European Parliament, in recognising the holodomor as a genocide.
I rise to support the motion, and to commend my hon. Friend Mrs Latham for bringing the debate to the House.
Central European countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Croatia and, of course, Ukraine are the most active countries in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I currently chair as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. It is very much from that perspective that I will speak today. Why are those countries among the most active in our alliance? It is because they know persecution and oppression. They have lived it, and in Ukraine many live it today. They live with the results of the holodomor of the 1930s. I believe that that is one reason why the Ukrainians have such a strong character now, and are able to stand so commendably against what Putin is doing to attack their country.
All too often—I hope I will be forgiven for saying this—those of us who have lived our lives mainly in the UK, and have even reached a certain age, see opposing persecution or discrimination on account of what people believe or who they are as a principle worth fighting for. That is worthy, but for the central European country colleagues with whom I work it is more than a principle; it is a lived reality. They have suffered, their countries have suffered, their families have suffered. My Slovakian counterpart as a Government-appointed representative on the IRFBA is Ambassador Anna Záborská. While she was growing up as a young girl, her father spent 12 years imprisoned by the communists for his beliefs. Ambassador Robert Rehak, the vice-chair of the alliance and the Czech Republic representative, was a teenager in the late 1980s when the communist state police came to his school and told him, “'If you speak out once more, we will take you away.” He knew that they meant it, because he had seen bodies taken away through the streets of Prague in black bags.
Today, we have heard again about the deliberate starvation of people in Ukraine by the USSR within living memory, during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. To us, the cruelty that was inflicted on millions then is almost beyond comprehension. Farming families were thrown out of their homes and off their farms, losing their livelihoods, and were deported or given the option of being forced to work in collectives or starved. They were barred from returning to the fields that many had farmed for generations, even to gather a few grains, on pain of being killed—as many were. According to one account, teenage children were placed as border guards on the watchtowers above the fields of grain so that local people did not return to their farms to gather even a small amount of food. One such youth even betrayed his own father, who had tried to return for food. His father was killed as a result, and, tragically, the boy was then killed by his grieving grandfather.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire spoke of cannibalism during that period. I read, with incredulity, an account of children's limbs being displayed for sale as meat on a market stall. This dehumanisation, this total absence of respect for people as human beings, contrasts starkly with what motivates so many of us today to work for freedom of religion or belief—the importance of respecting every individual as a human being, whatever their beliefs. During the period we are speaking of today and the communist decades, communism was militantly atheistic and declared religion to be its mortal enemy. Clergy were murdered and countless believers cast into prison and work camps, where many suffered indescribable torture. Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and feminist scholar, says of totalitarianism—a state that seeks to control not only actions but thoughts and emotions:
“wherever it has ruled, it has begun to destroy the essence of man.”
In the novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, by Czech writer Milan Kundera, the character Sabina, a lifelong citizen under communism, says:
“the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful.”
Perhaps the most utterly moving book that I have read describing the holodomor and other heartrending suffering in the USSR, particularly in Ukraine, is “Stalin’s Children” by Owen Matthews. He traces his family over three generations, several of whom lived through Stalin’s purges. The book was published over 10 years ago, but it is harrowing to read it today as Putin crouches at the door of so many of the countries I mentioned at the beginning of my speech—Ukraine, yes, but many other countries that border or are near that country.
That is why I believe it is so pertinent that the next freedom of religion or belief ministerial will be held in the Czech Republic at the end of November under the title, “FoRB Under Authoritarian Regimes”. The people of the countries in that region lived through those regimes. They have stories to tell and lessons that they have learnt. They have a collective message to convey out of their collective memory about what can happen when an ideology seeks to suppress religious belief, and with it human dignity and life itself.
That is a message that needs to be told. A 2019 survey found that only 51% of US millennials—their UK counterparts could well be the same—believe that the declaration of independence offers a better opportunity for freedom and equality than the communist manifesto. Any romanticised perception of communism must be debunked. In the UK, the Holocaust Education Trust has in recent years been doing a tremendous job educating our children and young people about the horrors of the holocaust, so that maybe—just maybe—“never again” becomes a reality for their generation as it has not been for ours. Similarly, the horrors of life under the communist regime before and after the Nazis must be told to this young generation—horrors that include the holodomor. Recognising the holodomor as a genocide is one way we can begin to address this.
It is a privilege to speak after three such powerful contributions. I commend in particular my hon. Friend and colleague on the International Development Committee, Mrs Latham, for her opening remarks, which set out so many of the important facts.
There is a very large Ukrainian diaspora in Scotland, including the south of Scotland and my constituency. During the war, there was a prisoner of war camp near Lockerbie called Hallmuir, which is important to the Ukrainian community because the Ukrainian chapel created by prisoners there has been preserved and is now being enhanced. It was a great pleasure to welcome his excellency the ambassador to the chapel prior to Putin’s invasion, and indeed prior to the contemplation of that invasion.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire said, the holodomor is a hugely important issue for the diaspora and it was an issue before the invasion. It is not an issue that should be addressed because of the invasion; it is an issue that should already have been addressed. One reason for it not having been addressed is ignorance. People did not know the full scale of the atrocities and it is only more recently that what happened to the people of Ukraine prior to the second world war has become known. Having that knowledge puts into context some of the things that happened in the build-up to the war and subsequently, and it is important that people see events in that period in that context.
We have heard many details of the atrocities. I found it so difficult to hear a young man’s account of the system whereby people would come round to remove dead bodies. His grandmother was dead, but his sister was still breathing. However, the man who came to collect the bodies took the view that he would just take her anyway, because then he would not have to come back the next day or the day after. It is virtually impossible for us here and now to understand how it was to live in that environment. Previous speakers have set out other equally horrendous examples.
Through his illegal war and propaganda, we have seen Putin try again to stop Ukraine feeding the world, which has caused hunger in other countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, by obstructing grain exports. Of course, he then blamed Ukraine for people not getting the food they need.
Would my right hon. Friend add to that list of consequences the energy crisis throughout Europe, which is partially affecting the world, which was driven by the fact that, for an extended period, the supply of gas from Russia to Germany was maintained, the result of which was to create an energy crisis at such a pitch that countries such as the UK are now suffering inflation and far too high gas prices? Does he believe that that is also a very important factor?
I agree. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Part of Putin’s strategy is to create as many problems as possible for other countries, and then to blame those problems on somebody else. In this House, we must always be clear that the energy crisis, at its heart, comes from Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
As my hon. Friends have mentioned, it is very difficult to say exactly how many people died in 1932-33. Estimates vary, but a 2003 UN report put the figure at about 7 million to 10 million people. Those numbers do not, however, tell of the privations experienced, which we have just touched on. They do not tell of the slow and painful deaths. My hon. Friend Mrs Latham mentioned the turning to cannibalism; many people were compelled to do that. But the holodomor did not come from a poor harvest, bad weather or poor stewardship of land, which we often associate with the Soviet era; it was man-made—by Stalin and his apparatchiks. It was a deliberate act, the culmination of an assault by the Communist party and Soviet state on the Ukrainian people. Their agricultural produce was requisitioned from them by the Russian leadership. Their land was taken from them. They were starving, but banned from leaving their homesteads. Many had no choice but to die. None of it needed to happen. It was the result of deliberate decisions and what was the reason? The productive agricultural lands of Ukraine were a patchwork of small holdings, and people having a little more than enough to feed their own families made them ideological enemies of the Soviet state. That so-called “class element” has perhaps given some commentators cause to question whether the holodomor constituted a genocide. They are, however, making a distinction without a difference. It is clear that the deliberate and systematic murder of millions of people cannot be classified in any other way than as genocide. We in the UK need to recognise that.
I pay tribute to people such as Dr Peter Kormylo in Scotland, who has long campaigned on these issues. As I said in my opening remarks, these issues did not come to the fore because of recent events, but they are all the more poignant, as others have said, because of those events. We can send a very clear message to the Ukrainian people that we not only recognise the suffering they are experiencing at this moment, but understand the suffering they have experienced previously to get them to this point in their history. Therefore, it is very important that the House follow the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire and adopt the position that she so eloquently set out.
We have heard from hon. Members across the Chamber some of the personal horrors that were experienced. When we hear words such as “millions”, it is tempting not to drill down and understand that, when we are talking about millions of people being killed in this way, we are talking about millions of horrific individual experiences. Members have done well in reflecting that.
Mrs Latham deserves praise for bringing this issue to the Chamber today, along with the Backbench Business Committee. It is vital for us to discuss the holodomor and to get action on recognising it as a genocide as a result of this debate because, as she pointed out, the UK Government’s position on this is—let us be delicate about it—out of date, to say the least. They need to change that, but I will come to that in a moment or two.
The hon. Lady talked about how important this is for Ukraine’s identity, a theme that will continue. She eloquently described some of the horrors of the holodomor that were enforced on people in Ukraine by Stalin.
Nadia Whittome talked very movingly about the testimony from families, and described the holodomor as a great crime against humanity, and it is. Like others, I am very keen to bring that into the current context of the illegal war in Ukraine.
Fiona Bruce raised the subject of freedom of religion and belief, and pointed out that the Ukrainian people know repression; they have experienced it for so long that they have had to become resilient to it. Again, she recounted some shocking examples of the horrors inflicted on them. We should listen to that, because without the international spotlight being on the illegal invasion by Putin’s forces, who knows what other horrors might be going on, in addition to those being wrought on the people of Ukraine? It is important for this to be recognised and seen.
David Mundell talked about the diaspora and how important it is for the Ukrainian people here and in other countries to see the UK Government recognise their situation, and it is vital that that is done. It is 90 years since the holodomor. It was, as others have said, a man-made famine that claimed millions of lives and, as I have said, led to millions of individual stories of suffering. Its acknowledgement is a crucial chapter in our global history, for its implications reach far beyond the borders of Ukraine. Today, Ukraine is fighting not only for the respect and sanctity of its own borders, but for the very principles of world order and the international rule of law.
In understanding the holodomor, we should be clear about its origins. It was not simply a tragedy, but a political act of terror perpetrated by Stalin’s regime. It was a horrifying result of policies designed to quell Ukrainian independence and aspirations. Starvation was used as a weapon of control and domination. It was a strategy, as we have heard time and again, that resulted in the death of millions of people.
Why should the UK recognise the holodomor as a genocide? Recognition is more than just a label; it is about admitting the truth of historical events and acknowledging the extent of suffering endured by the Ukrainian people. It serves as a message that we will not turn a blind eye to unimaginable acts of cruelty and injustice. It is a vital marker in the current context of Putin’s illegal war. Recognising the holodomor as a genocide holds implications for the present illegal war and sends a strong message to the world that any use of starvation as a weapon—we have heard today about other tactics that have been deployed by Putin’s forces to try to force deprivation on the people of Ukraine—is utterly unacceptable and constitutes a most grave violation of human rights. In this recognition, we also remember and honour the victims and survivors of this horrific event.
As we have heard, the European Union and 28 other countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, have officially recognised the holodomor as a genocide, but the United Kingdom has yet to take this step. We must align ourselves with these nations not simply to match them, but to uphold the principles of justice, human rights and historical accuracy that we, as nations of the UK, should hold dear—if we do not, I ask the Minister why not. Our Government here in the UK should formally recognise the holodomor as a genocide, reaffirming our commitment to human rights and sending a clear message to any regime that contemplates using these tactics as a weapon.
The UK Government could and should establish a special tribunal for the crime of aggression and, in addition to military aid, we should continue to support Ukraine by fostering strong political, economic and cultural ties. Let us join in the commemoration activities, champion the rights of Ukrainians here and abroad, and continue our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Acknowledging the holodomor as genocide is a tribute to and a remembrance of millions of victims, an assertion of historical truth and a powerful stand against the repetition of such horrors. Let us not shrink from our responsibility to history and humanity. The time for recognition is now.
I thank Mrs Latham and Stewart Malcolm McDonald, who is not with us today, for securing this debate. Their commitment to raising the profile of the holodomor has rightly drawn recognition from across the House, and it is truly a worthy subject for this House to consider. I also acknowledge our very good friends from the Ukrainian Embassy, who are in the Gallery.
This week, we saw the embodiment of Ukraine’s continued defiance and bravery, as President Zelensky attended the G7 and ensured that the crimes against his country rightly remain at the epicentre of global focus. We saw that bravery exemplified again when he returned and visited marines on the Vuhledar-Maryinka defence line. As the fierce fighting in Bakhmut and other areas continues, the consensus and resolve across this House, and the commitment of the UK more broadly, to support Ukraine in driving back Russia’s barbarous war machine has never counted more. We have heard many powerful speeches today, including from my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome.
The war in Ukraine is entering a critical stage. Freedom must win out over tyranny and Putin’s aggression must fail. As Ukrainians continue to defend themselves and prepare for a critical offensive, it is crucial that they know that nations around the world support their fight without wavering. I reiterate that the Opposition will stand with them for as long as it takes. Their decisive victory is not only morally right; it is the route to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition told President Zelensky when he met him in Kyiv, whichever party is in power in the UK in the future, there will be no let-up in Britain’s resolve. We will continue to support Ukraine’s brave defenders and its people in their quest for freedom, peace and justice.
In light of this debate, we must also continue to reflect on the immense historical suffering Ukraine has endured, as well as the remarkable courage and resilience of its people and the progress that has been made over the years, which has sadly been pushed back in so many areas by Russia’s barbarism. This debate has brought home the fact that today’s illegal and unconscionable war comes after a history of Ukraine being subjected to immense brutality, especially in the terrible events of the holodomor—one of the most atrocious instances of man-made famine in European history, which as we have heard today culminated in the deaths of millions of people.
Like many hon. Members, when I was in Ukraine just a few months ago I not only witnessed the aftermath of the Russian atrocities in Ukraine today, but visited the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide and the memorial. The content that was displayed there was incredibly moving and shocking. I draw attention to my declaration of interest as a shadow Minister in relation to that cross-party trip.
Everybody should recognise the reality of what happened to the Ukrainian people. It was very sad to see that some of the exhibits in the museum had been removed for safety because of the current conflict. It is clear that Stalin’s role in catalysing enforced, man-made, widespread starvation, particularly in 1932 and 1933, understandably and rightly lives on in the Ukrainian national psyche and among Ukrainians worldwide. That is true not least in Canada, where I spent time when I was younger, nearly 25 years ago, and first heard about that terrible period in history from Ukrainian Canadians.
The barbarism we saw 90 years ago carries as much salience today as ever, particularly given what we have seen since. The personal stories are some of the most harrowing, as we have heard today. A congressional commission that took evidence in the late 1980s heard from an individual who grew up in the village of Stavyshche, who spoke of watching people dig into empty gardens with their hands in a desperate bid to find anything to eat, of witnessing people bloated from extreme malnutrition collapsing on the road one by one and, of course, of the mass graves.
It is a tragedy that today we again see mass graves in Ukraine and hear terrible stories of atrocities being committed. As with the war today, there was a clear perpetrator behind the famine. Stalin’s motivation to transform and mould the Ukrainian nation in his own image at any cost is mirrored in Putin’s warped, imperialist world view, the consequences of which continue to devastate the lives of Ukrainians. Indeed, Putin’s misguided and perverse attempts to wipe out Ukrainian identity are the most recent manifestation of Russia’s penchant for interference, subjugation, war and atrocity.
This topic carries particular weight for me as a Welsh MP, as I said when we debated it in Westminster Hall a few months ago. A great deal of what know about the holodomor came to us thanks to the bravery of a Welshman, Gareth Jones. We have heard about the excellent and very moving 2019 feature film, “Mr Jones”, which was directed by Agnieszka Holland. Gareth Jones was born in Barry, in the Vale of Glamorgan—just a few miles away from my constituency—in 1905. Of course, as many Members will know, it is suspected that he was murdered by the Soviet NKVD in 1935. Sadly, so little changes.
After witnessing the horrible consequences of Stalin’s tyranny at first hand, Gareth Jones detailed those consequences—we have heard many quotations today. He said:
“I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.’ In the train a Communist denied to me that there was a famine. I flung a crust of bread which I had been eating from my own supply into a spittoon. A peasant fellow-passenger fished it out and ravenously ate it. I threw an orange peel into the spittoon and the peasant again grabbed it and devoured it. The Communist subsided.”
In a letter to David Lloyd George, the then British Prime Minister, Jones wrote:
“Dear Mr. Lloyd George,
I have just arrived from Russia where I found the situation disastrous. The Five Year Plan has been a complete disaster…and has brought famine to every part of the country. I tramped alone for several days through a part of the Ukraine, sleeping in peasants’ huts. I spoke with a large number of workers, among whom unemployment is rapidly growing. I discussed the situation with almost every British, German and American expert… The situation is so grave, so much worse than in 1921”.
Of course, Jones defied Soviet attempts to censor him, and reported the truth of the holodomor to millions. In another echo of history, the Kremlin continued to deny the existence of the famine, launched a mendacious campaign against Gareth Jones and tried to silence him, but it could not. The parallels with today are striking: journalists, correspondents and reporters from many countries, not least Ukraine itself, are putting themselves in danger to expose the true extent of Russia’s barbarism and war crimes. They are integral to thwarting Putin’s concerted information war and to bringing justice to those who have been subjected to war crimes and atrocities.
I have a few questions for the Minister about the current context, which draws so much on those horrible historical parallels. We have seen concerted attempts by Russia to lie about and weaponise food supplies to the rest of the world. In a dreadful parallel to the way it used food as a weapon of war in the holodomor, it is now doing so with the rest of the world. The truth about that must be known and fully understood globally. Indeed, there are reports this week that the Ukrainian port of Pivdennyi has halted operations because Russia is not permitting ships to enter, effectively cutting it out of the deal allowing safe Black sea exports.
What are we doing to tell the world the truth about Russia’s continued interference with world food supplies from Ukraine, including the mining of fertile Ukrainian agricultural land, and the impact on prices? What steps will be taken to rebuild Ukraine, its agricultural capacity, its ability to thrive and its economy in the future? What will we do to seize, not just freeze, Russian state assets?
The upcoming reconstruction conference is a critical opportunity to support Ukraine and our diplomatic coalition, and it must be seized. The Minister knows that he has our full support in his endeavours for that conference, and I thank him for discussing it with me. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that adequate resources are generated at the conference, particularly to support reconstruction? Efforts will also be needed to bring back full agricultural capacity to Ukraine, particularly through the removal of landmines and unexploded ordnance, which we know cover so much of the country and could cause problems in food production for years to come.
I will write to the Minister about a number of concerns about our sanctions regime. We have debated the sanctions regime in many Statutory Instrument Committees, but I have some specific concerns on which I hope he will come back to us urgently, because we all want the most robust regime against the atrocities that Russia is committing today.
Historically and today, the price that Ukrainians have had to pay for their freedom is immense. The events of 90 years ago are an anguishing and chilling reminder of the consequences when tyranny runs without constraint and imperialism without restriction. We are tragically unable to undo the horrors of the past 90 years ago, but we can take resolute steps to prevent them from happening again today.
Given the comments that have been made today, I have one fundamental question for the Minister. It is clear that these were appalling, historic atrocities in the holodomor that deserve proper recognition. It was a tragedy on an appalling scale. I hope he will be able to set out clearly what the Government’s policy is on the recognition of genocide and respond to the important questions raised, particularly in relation to the legal and precedential context, and how the Government intend to respond if the motion is agreed by the House, not least given the international movements on this issue, which a number of Members referred to, in particular the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire.
Finally, I assure Ukrainians at home and abroad that we see your suffering and bravery, both historical and present. We will remember the terrible events of the holodomor, and we will stand resolutely with you today.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Mrs Latham for securing this debate and for maintaining over many years a spotlight on this horrific issue. I thank all colleagues for their moving contributions to today’s important debate. We were pleased to welcome in the early stages of the debate the Ukrainian ambassador to the Court of St James’s—we value his terrific diplomacy on a daily basis. Of course, we must never stop learning from these events.
I was grateful for the contribution from Stephen Doughty, and I will cover the questions he asked before I make substantive remarks. I can reassure him that we are very active in countering disinformation with regard to food supplies. He asked some pertinent questions about the international efforts to rebuild Ukraine with regard to agriculture and wholesale reconstruction. That will be the theme of the Ukraine reconstruction conference next month. I will not pre-empt the content, but I am pleased that he will be involved, along with other shadow Ministers. I would be pleased to consider his queries regarding our sanctions regime if he puts them in writing.
I turn to the substantive question raised in this debate. In simple terms, when it comes to the Government’s stance on genocide generally, there is universal agreement that the holodomor was one of the darkest chapters in Ukrainian and European history. It was a vast and horrific man-made disaster that killed millions of innocent people, as we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, so calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire and others to designate it as a genocide are wholly understandable. Nevertheless, I believe that there are sound and logical reasons for this Government to maintain the long-held position of UK Governments and refrain from making determinations about whether a genocide has or has not been committed.
It is a long-standing policy of the Government that any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a competent court, after consideration of all the evidence available, rather than Governments or non-judicial bodies. This approach ensures that genocide determinations are above politics, above lobbying and above individual, political or national interests. It means that UK Government references to genocides are harder to dismiss by those responsible for genocidal acts. The Government believe that this remains the right approach, because it gives our words authority. This in no way detracts from our recognition of the appalling events of the holodomor.
Everybody in this Chamber is on the same side in wanting this to be explored properly and recognised. Is the Minister saying that the European Union and the 28 other countries that have recognised this as a genocide do not have the legitimacy that he is saying the UK Government do? That does not necessarily hold with most people’s understanding of this matter.
I am saying that, notwithstanding the other important political events that have happened in other Parliaments, it is very important for the long-term legal integrity of the UK Government’s position that we maintain our consistency of approach. That does not detract from the horror of the holodomor, as I have said, nor our recognition of the appalling brutality of Stalin’s policies and regime, and nor does it dilute our determination to remember the victims of the holodomor, as the Prime Minister did by lighting a candle at the memorial for them when he visited Kyiv in November. Other colleagues in this House have also done so, and have reflected upon that this afternoon. Of course, our officials in Ukraine, including our ambassador, regularly attend similar commemoration events.
Today, we stand firm in our support for Ukrainians amid growing evidence of appalling atrocities committed during Putin’s illegal war. As colleagues will know, we have supported our Ukrainian friends since 2014, and we continue to be at the forefront of international support for Ukraine, in both humanitarian and military support. We were the first country in the world to train Ukrainian troops; we were the first in Europe to provide lethal weapons and to commit tanks; and just this month, we were the first to provide long-range missiles. I am very pleased that we are now at the forefront of a coalition to train and equip the Ukrainian air force.
I will briefly turn to accountability, which is an important theme, given the debate we have had. We have been working alongside our Ukrainian friends and the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office to help them investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes. We have been working alongside the EU and the US to establish the atrocity crimes advisory group, in order to co-ordinate international support for Ukraine’s war crimes investigations, and we welcome the step taken by the International Criminal Court to hold those at the top of the Russian regime to account, including Vladimir Putin. In March the UK co-hosted the Justice Ministers conference, alongside the Netherlands. That conference brought together global partners to enhance financial, practical and technical support to the ICC and its investigation into the situation in Ukraine. Very importantly, we are part of the core group of G7 nations that are exploring options to investigate and prosecute the crime of aggression committed in and against Ukraine, including a potential special tribunal. Accountability is at the heart of our support to our friends in Ukraine.
I was pleased to be invited to a meeting with the Ukrainian Justice Minister and the UK Attorney General during that period, and I thank the Minister for that—he knows he has our full support on those prosecutions. Could he give us an idea of the timeline for that working group on the special tribunal? Obviously, this is an idea that has been in the ether for some time now.
That is a valid question, and the answer is “as soon as possible.” These things are not easy; if they were, we would have done them already. Work is underway apace, and my colleague the Attorney General visited Kyiv earlier this year in order to expedite some of that work. We will keep colleagues in this House updated.
To conclude, the holodomor and Putin’s war are two of the darkest chapters in Ukraine’s history. Our stance is that any determination on genocide must be made by the courts; that does not, of course, detract from our recognition of the holodomor as the most appalling disaster, one that resonates today in the shadows of Putin’s modern aggression. The UK is supporting Ukraine to fight back and to bring those responsible for appalling acts of brutality to justice.
I fully understand what my hon. Friend is setting out, but for those in the Ukrainian diaspora in the UK, given all the things he has mentioned that the UK is currently doing, how would the UK’s standing be diminished in any way by recognising the holodomor as a genocide?
I do not contend that it would be— I think our support is clear, including support to Ukraine’s judicial system and the ICC to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes. Of course, we share Ukraine’s determination that Putin’s illegal invasion must fail and that justice must be done. As President Zelensky said earlier this month in The Hague, there can be no peace without justice. The desire for Ukraine to prevail, and for justice to prevail, remains something that unites us all across the House.
I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members across the House who have taken the time to attend this important debate on the last day before recess, which is not the best day. We have had some incredibly thoughtful contributions and some harrowing and shocking examples of what happened during the holodomor. Members from all parts of the House have shown a great deal of cross-party unity in today’s debate, which is not the same in every debate we have in the House. The holodomor was a terrible crime against the people of Ukraine, and I am glad that the House finally has the opportunity to express a formal view on its classification as a genocide, although I have to say I continue to disagree with the Minister and his predecessors on the determination to which they have come.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
believes that the Holodomor was a genocide against the Ukrainian people.
The second Backbench Business debate has been deferred, so the motion is therefore not moved.