[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Ukrainian Holodomor.
What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and it is even better that the Minister managed to make it here, having been very busy in the Chamber until this point. The motion is that the House has considered the Ukrainian holodomor, but I hope that we can widen the scope slightly to, “That this House is aware of the panorama of horror of the Ukrainian holodomor, and recognises this man-made famine as genocide.”
I recognise that because everybody is on a one-line Whip and we are about to go into a short recess, not many people will speak in today’s debate, but that does not mean the issue is not of great historical, social and political significance. In 2013, I spoke in this Chamber about the Ukrainian holodomor. Since then, I have repeatedly called on the UK Government to recognise the holodomor in Ukraine as genocide. I stand here today to remind colleagues of that atrocity, which occurred in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, and to ask again that the Government recognise that politicised act of evil as genocide.
Holodomor literally means “death by starvation”, and the Ukrainian holodomor was a campaign purposely orchestrated by Joseph Stalin to decimate a large segment of the Ukrainian population—the peasants. The Soviet Government tried to requisition as much food out of Ukraine as possible at that time. It is broadly understood that the genocide began in 1929 with mass deportations of prosperous farmers and the execution of Ukrainian religious, academic and cultural leaders. In the 1930s, Stalin’s food programme called for peasants to give up their land and join collective farms. Stalin was particularly opposed to the Ukrainian kulaks, who were slightly more prosperous and therefore thought to be more dangerous than poor peasants. Kulaks were turned out of their homes, forced to give up their land and sent to labour camps.
It is clear that Stalin’s regime wanted to teach Ukraine’s farmers a lesson they would not forget for resisting the collectivisation. Soviet authorities set unachievable goals for Ukraine’s basic grain production of 44% in 1932. That was exceedingly high, and achieving it was even more difficult given that the communists had already ruined the nation’s productivity by eliminating their best farmers.
In 1932, not a single village was able to meet the impossible quota, and under Soviet rule, no grain could be given to a peasant until the quota was achieved. Men, women and children—we must not forget that they were fathers, mothers, daughters and sons—were slowly starved to death through the implementation of a policy intended to put an end to the Ukrainian aspiration for independence. Stalin believed that the Ukrainian ethno-cultural self-assertion was a threat to the pre-eminence of Russian culture in Soviet affairs, and to the centralisation of all political authority.
Ukrainian peasants had their basic freedoms stripped away. They were banned from leaving their home towns and villages. There was no escape. The ways to rescue were intentionally blocked. Soviet troops detained hundreds of thousands of farmers, 90% of whom were forcibly returned to their hungry villages to die. Although the exact number of those who died during the holodomor is not known, it is estimated to be between 7 million and 10 million Ukrainian people. At the height of the famine, 17 people died each minute, 1,041 people died each hour and 25,000 people died each day. More than 3 million children born in 1932 and 1933 died of starvation. Many people died of starvation in their homes, with some trying to end the process by suicide, if they had the strength for it.
While that was happening, the Soviet Government injected 1.7 million tonnes of grain into western markets. That grain, which could have saved millions of lives, was processed into vodka.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate forward and thank her for doing so. Although I had a little knowledge of this part of history, I did not know entirely about it. Does she agree that the Ukrainian holodomor stands as a reminder to the entire world that a nation can rise up from the ashes of hatred to take its rightful place, and will she join me in applauding the Ukrainian people for the indomitable spirit that remains within them to this day?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country are descendants of people who were part of and who died in the holodomor, so they do have an indomitable spirit, and even now in Ukraine they show that they will not be bowed by the people of the Soviet Union.
The historian Dominic Sandbrook recently wrote in the Daily Mail about the brutality of this “Marxist experiment”. He said that there were
“Starving children, mass graves, vigilantes, even cannibalism: the famine saw human nature stripped to the bone.”
The disregard for the life of the Ukrainian people was abominable. The corpses of those who had died seeking food lay on the roadside. In the winter, many of the bodies were concealed by snow until the spring thaw, at which point they were callously dumped into mass graves by communists. A third of all Ukrainian villages were put on blacklists, and those villages were turned into ghettos of famine. There was no chance to survive. People started to eat corpses. At the peak of the crisis, in 1933, policemen barged into farmhouses and seized everything that could be eaten: not just grain but potatoes, squash and peas—everything in the cupboards.
It is our duty not only to raise awareness of this historic atrocity, but to acknowledge this event as what it was: genocide. The dictionary describes genocide as
“the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.”
As I stated, the Ukrainian holodomor saw the systematic starvation of a huge proportion of the Ukrainian nation, particularly of the peasant class, as a consequence of Stalin’s dogma. In the same way that the holocaust is an example of genocide perpetrated by an overtly racist, fascist regime, which had as its avowed purpose the annihilation of the Jewish people, the Ukrainian holodomor is an example of a crime deliberately perpetrated by a communist regime contaminated by Russian chauvinism, targeting one nation of people.
As the Government acknowledged in response to my 2013 debate, the fact that during the famine Stalin closed the eastern border of Ukraine to stop starving peasants entering Russia in search of food is perhaps one of the strongest indications that his policies were at least in part motivated by hostility to Ukraine as a nation with an identity, tradition and culture of its own. Today, that would be called ethnic cleansing. Members may be interested to learn that Dr Raphael Lemkin, the author of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide—adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948—called the destruction of the Ukrainian nation a “classic example” of genocide. He noted that the intention of the holodomor was to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism and tackle the Ukrainian national resistance, and in an attempt to achieve that, the peasantry were sacrificed.
In the debate I held on this topic in 2013, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), then the Minister for Europe, argued that since the UN genocide convention was enacted in 1948, the holodomor could not legally be defined as genocide retrospectively. He argued that it is necessary for judges, rather than Governments, to make a designation of genocide, as courts are better placed to make decisions on essentially criminal matters. If that remains the case, I ask the Minister to consider the following questions. What needs to happen for the UK judiciary to consider the question of whether the holodomor was genocide? Is there a UK legal precedent that could be used by a potential prosecuting body as a route map? Which of all the UK courts, from the Supreme Court down to magistrates court, is most competent and best placed to evaluate the holodomor question? Would the Government consider initiating an inquiry or judicial process?
It is important to acknowledge that 17 nations have already recognised the holodomor in Ukraine as genocide, including Australia, Canada and the US. The Australian Senate recognised it as genocide in 2003, and the European Parliament identified the holodomor as a crime against humanity in 2008. It is only right that the UK should follow suit, and I fail to understand why we have not done so.
Interestingly, sociological research shows that 80% of Ukrainians consider the holodomor an act of genocide. In 2006, the Government of Ukraine passed a law recognising the disaster as genocide against the Ukrainian people. In the vote in the Ukrainian Parliament, pro-western parties voted in favour of the law. Ukraine has sought international recognition of the holodomor as an act of genocide, and says that Russia should accept responsibility for the famine as the Soviet Union’s legal successor. Russia says that it cannot be classified as a genocide, as millions of people from various ethnic backgrounds across the Soviet Union suffered.
Members might ask the significance of raising the issue today, 85 years after the event. There are a number of reasons. I stress that this is not simply a Ukrainian issue; the event had global implications. The Ukrainian holodomor is an example of a crime caused by a political ideology and fuelled by prejudice. It is a tragic and extreme example of the impacts of dictatorship and the dangers posed by a regime whose rule removes freedoms from individuals. Important lessons can be learned from it, including ensuring that the world is never again blind to such a wide-scale atrocity.
Since 1932, using starvation to control people has become standard among communist regimes. We have seen it in China, North Korea, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Zimbabwe. We must send the strongest possible signal that it can never happen again. Furthermore, it must be understood that memories of the famine underlie much of the current tension between Russia and Ukraine. Our understanding of the issue is central to our grasp of current affairs.
It should be noted that Russian officials’ questioning of Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation and continued denial of the holodomor are troubling and dangerous developments, not only for Ukrainians but for all of us in this Chamber and around the world who love and value our liberties. People in Ukraine note that their current political and social troubles arise from boundless fear as a consequence of the holodomor. They fear reverting back to their national roots, because there have been times when being linked to those roots caused the deaths of millions of people. However, they also look at events positively. In a speech in 2015, the Ukrainian President said that Ukrainians must remember their past and draw conclusions from it. They are keen to get rid of the “nation-victim sentiment” and be proud that they defended their place on the European political map when up against great adversity.
It is vital that we commemorate those whose lives were stolen; we must remember them and reflect on the tragic way in which they were taken. I am sure that Members will appreciate that the holodomor is a never-ending trauma for Ukraine that had a catastrophic impact on Ukrainian national identity. Every year, Ukrainians mark a holodomor remembrance day on the fourth Saturday of November. This year, it will fall on Saturday 25 November, so it is appropriate to be discussing the holodomor at this time of year. It is our duty to the millions of victims to remember them and make their story known throughout the world, as one of the most tragic pages in mankind’s history in the 20th century.
There are still those who deny the famine. For example, in Russia, it is illegal to commemorate the holodomor. By commemorating these events, we are taking a stand against that unjust stance. Ukrainians hope to establish a comprehensive social dialogue of memory, while moving on and developing as a fully free and democratic nation. In 1991, after Ukraine gained independence, the first memorial book was published. After 60 years of taboo imposed by Soviet authorities on this tragic subject, the family of Ukrainian journalists Lidia Kovalenko and Volodymyr Maniak collected and arranged testimonies from all over Ukraine. According to the book’s authors, the survivors had reached their final stage in life and hastened to tell the terrible truth that haunted them all their lives. The totalitarian regime had tried to trample the memory of the terrible famine into the ground. Even today, there are still graves in yards and gardens in some villages where the living had no strength to take the dead to the cemetery, and buried them where they had lived and died.
As we are sadly aware, the 20th century was a time of great human tragedies. Although most British people know about tragedies such as the holocaust of 1939 to 1945, few British have heard about the horrors of the holodomor, and until recent years, world awareness was minimal. The crimes of Bolshevism and Stalinism are identical to those of Nazism. The very nature of those regimes is one and the same. In the Soviet Union, the holodomor was a taboo subject that was denied and covered up. In addition, Soviet authorities attacked western journalists who wanted to inform the public about the scope of the famine. It is hard for us to believe today that a large international power could keep an atrocity of that size secret for decades, but the holodomor nearly disappeared from world awareness.
On raising awareness, I support hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the UK and millions all over the world in calling on this Government to include the holodomor in the British school curriculum. I recently wrote a letter to that effect to the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), but have yet to receive a response.
Close to my constituency in Derbyshire is a Ukrainian national campsite that has been running for many years. It enables descendants of families caught up in the holodomor to come together to ensure that their roots and culture live on. I have the privilege of visiting the centre most summers; children come from across the country to participate. Quite a few people who went every year as children have ended up marrying each other in the church there, which is a rather nice end to their childhood relationship. Many volunteers go year after year to remember what it was like for their forebears and keep the Ukrainian community together.
I have built up a relationship with many of the young people and the organisers over the past 10 years or so, which is why I am concerned that this part of history is not being taught in our schools. I know that it would mean a great deal to them if their ancestors’ stories were told and more people had a greater awareness of the horrors of the holodomor.
To summarise, I appeal to the Government to finally give the Ukrainian holodomor its rightful status as a genocide, just as many other countries have done before us. Stalin’s weaponisation of hunger in Ukraine highlights the true evil of his communist regime and the impact that it had on the people quashed beneath it. We must highlight this historical wrongdoing, and raise awareness by taking affirmative action and showing our solidarity with the people of Ukraine, for whom that act of evil has had an intergenerational impact. Moreover, it is our duty to the millions of victims of the holodomor and their ancestors to remember them and to make their story known to the world as one of the most tragic pages of 20th century history.
I conclude with the words of a holodomor survivor—words that the Ukrainian President cited in 2015 in a speech commemorating the holodomor:
“Children do not run, they do not play, but sit on the roads. Their feet are so skinny, drawn up, and there is a big belly between them. The head is large and the face is bowed to the ground. And there is almost no face, only teeth. A child is sitting and rocking with its whole body…An infinite moaning song…And it demands—neither from a mother or a father—and pleads into the empty space and the world for only one thing: ‘Eat, eat, eat.’”
It is an honour and a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is a common courtesy to pay credit to the hon. Member who introduces the debate, but on this occasion I emphasise and underline that it is more than a courtesy: the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) has done a great service to this House not just today but on past occasions on which she has spoken on this painful, agonising subject. She is absolutely right that, as we approach 25 November, it is entirely appropriate to speak of these subjects.
The hon. Lady referred to the fact that there may not be a huge number of hon. Members here, but believe you me, Mr Walker, this is an issue that resonates throughout the world. We are fortunate to have Natalia Galibarenko, the ambassador of Ukraine, present. She is here because this matters to Ukrainians today, and not just to Ukrainian people but people who love humanity and decency and who want to correct and at least recognise some of the horrors of the past.
I apologise for the absence of the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine. He has been summoned to Brussels to meet Monsieur Michel Barnier. It will have been difficult for him to choose whether to go or stay. As a stalwart friend of Ukraine, he would have wanted to be here to join me in paying tribute and credit to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire.
Famine comes in many guises: the Bengal famine, the Irish famine, the Highland clearances. When Lemkin spoke of genocide in 1943, he referred to two specific instances: the holodomor and the Armenian genocide of April 1915. Those two genocides—I think the hon. Lady is right to use that word—are particularly terrible, each in their own special way.
Let us try to define our terms about the holodomor. There is some confusion as to the exact number of people who died, as the hon. Lady said. In 2010, a court of appeal in Kiev figured that the actual number was nearer 10 million, especially if Kuban, a very large region bigger than a Ukrainian oblast, is included. Sometimes we have to pause and think of the significance of that number—10 million people.
We have to ask ourselves why it happened. It was not because of a failure of the grain crop. Ukraine was and is the bread basket of Europe. It has been the greatest producer and supplier of high quality grain and bread throughout the centuries. Hitler always said that his main point in invading the east was to seize that bread basket and get the waving fields of corn—the grain of Ukraine. It must be the impact of collectivisation—I hope that that is not controversial anymore. Joseph Stalin perceived the kulaks as enemies of the state. Collectivisation resulted in nothing quite as serious as Ukraine, but there were similar crises in the 1930s in four other provinces such as Uzbekistan.
Anyone who has read “And Quiet Flows the Don” by Mikhail Sholokhov will know that when collectivisation was forced on villages, the commissars would come round every few months to see what was happening. Sholokhov writes so brutally in that story that when the commissar inspects the horses in the village and asks the groom, “Is everything was going well, comrade?”, the groom says, “I fear not, comrade commissar, because every day I have to water the horses. I have to brush the horses. I have to feed the horses. And every day, one horse gets more food, more water and better attention because that was my horse and I can no longer loose those bonds that I had with that one horse.” The commissar shoots him. That was the extent to which human nature was being forced against the grain in Ukraine.
A most successful people were suffering in that brutal way. I hope it is not controversial to say that the holodomor was, by any definition, a man-made famine and a genocide. The individual spirit and courage of the Ukrainian people that we have seen over and over again was a threat to the Comintern and to the Communist party in the 1930s. Anyone who was in the Euromaidan or who has seen the heroic reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donetsk and the Donbass region will recognise their immense courage and strength.
Another aspect was the brutal anti-clericalism—the attack on organised religion. One of the actors in the holodomor was Yemelyan Yaroslavsky, who ran an organisation called the League of the Militant Godless. Stalin could never quite come to terms with how the Ukrainian people clung to their faith, whether Catholic in the west or Orthodox in most of the country. Stalin could not cope with that and, although he moderated his anti-clericalism—his brutality, his slaughter of the bishops—after he came to some accommodation with the patriarch in the late 1930s, there was a distinct anti-clerical aspect to the slaughter in Ukraine.
Ukraine was considered an awkward place. As we all know, the word in old Russian means “borderland”. It was perceived as the borderland between Europe and Russia. Of course, Ukraine is far greater than a borderland—it is a great nation in its own right with its own language, culture, poetry, music and football team—but that was how the Russians saw it and they wanted to keep that border safe and sanitised. That meant crushing the religion, crushing the people and crushing the nation, but it absolutely did not work.
For 20 years, I have chaired an organisation called St Michael Mission Trust. It is committed to rebuilding churches mostly in and around the Kiev oblast, Fastiv and Lviv, where we have rebuilt a number of churches. To our amazement, we discovered that faith survived in Ukraine even through the equivalent of penal times when it was pretty awful—in this country we are looking back to the horrors of the gunpowder plot in 1605 so we know what penal times were like. The churches were still there, as were the priests and thriving religion. It is my duty, and I am proud and delighted to be able to say, that we continue to work with people in those churches to re-establish the churches in western Ukraine. I thank my colleague, Małgorzata Zajączkowska, who has worked with me for many years and who represents the finest spirit and emotion.
I hope that hon. Members will indulge my talking about the wider issue of genocide, in particular the Armenian genocide. It was unfortunate that on the hundredth anniversary of that genocide in April 2015 we were distracted by a general election and could not mention it on the floor of the House, but I have had many debates about it there. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire—I reach across the Chamber to clasp her and say that I, too, have suffered from miserable pettifogging bureaucratic Ministers who are incapable of opening their hearts and recognising the full horror. In my case, it was a Minister called Geoffrey Hoon who said that there could be no such thing as “genocide” before 1943. People died of cancer before anybody called it cancer, and that did not make it any less painful.
This was genocide—race murder, by Lemkin’s definition, which was adopted by the United Nations on 9 December 1948. The Ukrainian word “holodomor”—famine genocide—is more specific, but still refers to genocide. When 1.5 million people in Armenia were systematically slaughtered, murdered and driven into the desert to die by agents of the Ottoman empire, particularly in Aleppo and all along the Anatolian coast, that was another genocide. When Lemkin referred to those genocides, he noted the famous statement in Hitler’s speech: “Who now remembers the Armenians?” The Armenians were slaughtered, and so were the Ukrainians.
Is it not extraordinary that until very recently, whenever we in this country spoke about genocide and famine, we did not mention the holodomor in Ukraine? That is because we did not understand it—we did not appreciate the full horror of it. It is much to the credit of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire and others that we are finally able to confront the issue. I join her enthusiastically, vehemently, powerfully and as strongly as I can—I hope my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) will agree—in urging the Government to accept once and for all that the definition of genocide applies to the holodomor. For a nation’s people to be slaughtered and made the victims of genocide is a terrible thing, but the fact that that is not recognised with the word that we all understand as applying to it makes it even worse.
The Minister has had the busiest of days. His Front-Bench duties this afternoon have covered Israel, Yemen and Ukraine, and he is probably exhausted by the number of times he has been called a great, good and decent man on the Floor of the House. I do not resile from that; he is a good man, and I hope that that does not curse his political ambitions. He is flanked by some of the finest brains in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has a great weight of intellect behind him. However, I urge him: let us stop pettifogging about exact etymologies and chronologies. Let us simply say that what happened in the holodomor in Ukraine was genocide—nothing more, nothing less. It was a specific, targeted genocide that destroyed the best of a generation. It never destroyed the Ukrainian people; it never destroyed their pride, courage and strength; but it took away a generation and it left a painful scar that people still suffer today. No one can visit Ukraine today without seeing that it is still a live wound, a bruise and a source of pain.
Recognising that genocide is the proper description of the holodomor will not bring anybody back, but it may make people feel a little more assured that the rest of the world feels the pain that their ancestors and their families suffered. It may make them feel slightly more vindicated in what they know. We can argue about the origins, argue about Stalin or throw stones at the Communists, but whatever we do, nearly 10 million people died in the most abject agony.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire quite rightly read out the paragraph that we all know so well. We have seen the photographs and we know what it was like—but we cannot feel what it was like. We know through the prism of history, the pages of our textbooks and the screens of our computers—but we cannot know what it is like for people whose grandparents and great-grandparents starved to death. Perhaps they did resort to cannibalism—God forbid, but in moments of desperation, people do desperate things. Is it too much to ask that today we should say, “The Ukrainian people have suffered long and hard. Today we will accept and acknowledge that suffering. We will give it its proper title, its proper name: genocide.”?
There can be nothing more harrowing for parents than watching their children slowly die in front of them over many weeks and months. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing the debate and on her work on the subject; she painted a picture of horror, brutality and oppression. She is absolutely right to call on the Government to recognise the holodomor as genocide. As we have heard, between 7 million and 10 million people died; the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said that it is now recognised that the number is closer to 10 million than to 7 million. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the holodomor did not simply happen over two years; it was an ongoing oppression that started in 1929 when peasants had their rights stripped away.
One thing that the hon. Lady mentioned made me think of our own islands: the grain that was grown but taken and shipped away from the peasants. This part of the world has also suffered from a man-made famine in which nature had a part to play. In the 1840s, there was a potato blight across the north of Europe. It affected the highlands of Scotland, but it more brutally affected Ireland, particularly in areas such as Donegal and west Cork. While the potatoes that people relied on were being ravaged by the blight, crops were being grown and shipped away to other parts of Britain. Even in our own islands, we have some experience of man-made famine.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about famine and genocide and mentioned a number of famines across the world. He described Ukraine as the breadbasket of Europe and made the point that there was no shortage of grain; the famine was caused by oppression. It was about crushing the people—attacking the peasants. He mentioned the particular targeting of the faith community. He also said that Ukraine was not a borderland, but a nation in its own right—a concept that my party recognises and respects. He raised the important point that some people believe that there was no genocide before the 1940s. We recognise that other genocides have taken place, and it is only right that the holodomor is put in the same category.
May I say a few words on behalf of Scotland? The Scottish Parliament notes the day of remembrance of the holodomor and will recognise it on 25 November. We recognise that it was an entirely avoidable tragedy—a deliberate act of genocide committed by the Stalin regime against the people of Ukraine. I completely agree with the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that the UK Government must recognise that, as other European Governments have. That recognition is important, not only for people who want to find out more about history, but for relatives of the victims of the holodomor, including in the Ukrainian community in Scotland.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady’s flow, because she is speaking well, powerfully and passionately, as always. I sometimes despair of the way we tie ourselves in knots. Barack Obama referred to the Armenian genocide as the meds yeghern, which simply means “great crime” in Armenian. It seems to me that we are going round and round the houses with these expressions. Surely genocide—from “genus” and “-cide”—is the murder of a race. It is perfectly simple. Let us once and for all stop the obfuscation and the nonsense of trying to justify things with different names. Genocide is genocide. Until we call it that, we cannot be justified in addressing it, attacking it and—most importantly—preventing it.
Absolutely. Work has been done by many campaigners who want to raise awareness of the holodomor. Recognition is important if we are to avoid making the same mistakes again.
The present-day political situation in Ukraine remains tense and the Scottish Government continue to extend their support and solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We look forward to a time when tensions in Ukraine are significantly eased and dialogue is used rather than oppression. I will reiterate the words of my colleagues here: we must recognise the genocide. We must call it out as genocide and we must make sure that history is not repeated.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this important debate, in which, as has already been expressed, a huge amount of concern has been raised. She has helped to raise awareness of an issue that is generally under-discussed in this country, including in Parliament. I congratulate her on raising our awareness. She has also given us a timely reminder of why our commitment to helping to resolve the ongoing ethnic tensions in Ukraine remains important.
It is absolutely right that we recognise the famine of the 1930s for the humanitarian catastrophe that it so clearly was. As the writer Anne Applebaum documents in her recent book, “Red Famine”, roughly 13% of Ukraine’s entire population are likely to have been wiped out in the famine. Even today, the full extent of the death toll may never be known, in part because of the inevitable difficulties involved in determining whether deaths were caused directly by famine or by the widespread malnutrition and disease that inevitably came with it. Whether or not the famine came about because of the deliberate policies of the Stalin regime, it is surely undeniable that it was a man-made disaster that could and should have been avoided. As Anne Applebaum’s book reminds us, the highly emotive and sensitive question of whether the episode amounts to a genocide against the Ukrainian people remains unresolved.
The Opposition share the Government’s view that the definition of genocide is necessarily a matter of law. All three speakers in today’s debate have raised that issue with a great amount of passion, and the substance of the debate has recognised that. The matter must be tested in a court of law for us to be able to move forward and deal with it. Until that is done, it is difficult for Parliament to do anything, and whether the Government want to do that will be an issue for us in future. The question of whether the precise legal threshold for a classification of genocide has been met in any particular case must be left for the courts to decide.
That said, we must try to avoid becoming so preoccupied with the legal questions that we risk losing sight of the very real consequences of the tragedy for the Ukrainians of the time and of today. Entrenched divisions in the region, most predominantly but by no means exclusively between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, continue to drive the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and to hamper efforts to resolve it. We should remember that, in Ukraine, debates about whether the 1930s famine constitutes a genocide often play out as debates pitting the ethnic Ukrainian majority against the Russian-speaking minority, who have often felt marginalised by Kiev.
We should also remember that, more than any other factor, it is the Russian Government’s outrageously reckless and irresponsible efforts to fan the flames of grievances, particularly by continuing to provoke separatist sentiment in the Russian-speaking eastern regions, that continue to prolong a devastating conflict that has so far claimed more than 10,000 lives. As we remember the tragic events of Ukraine’s past, we must also redouble our efforts to help to resolve the challenges of the present. In this regard, we must first and foremost re-focus attention on the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea under Russian occupation.
It is disappointing that, under this Government, the UK has largely been an observer of the diplomatic process led by France and Germany, rather than an active participant. Can the Minister therefore tell us what specific steps the Government are now taking to support that process? What plans does he have to secure more active participation by the UK in efforts aimed at resolving the crisis peacefully?
Secondly, as the Government’s Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill moves through Parliament, what guarantees can the Minister give that, when we leave the EU, there will be no attempt to revoke or otherwise water down the sanctions that we have in place against Russia with regard to its actions in Ukraine and, specifically, that those sanctions will remain in place until the Minsk agreements have been implemented in full?
Finally, given that we are leaving the EU, it is important to remember how valuable the ability to co-ordinate on foreign policy with our European partners has been both for the UK and for the rest of the EU. This is particularly the case with regard to Ukraine, from co-ordinating sanctions between 28 EU member states to providing trade and other incentives for the political reforms that the Government of Ukraine must continue to pursue. Securing a formal set of arrangements on continuing close co-operation when we leave should be one of the Government’s top priorities. As far as I can tell, no plans have been made and there has been no progress on this issue in the negotiations, either. If I am wrong, I would be very happy for the Minister to correct me.
We need more than just warm words from the Government. We need an actual plan—a detailed and credible one—for securing a framework for the foreign policy co-operation that is so vital to sustaining British influence in places such as Ukraine. Seventy-five years on from a devastating famine, the country once again finds itself in a crisis. Just as we must commemorate the events of the past and give them their due recognition, so we must also bring our renewed commitment to healing the divides that are still very much with us today. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government intend to do that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this debate, which, for her, is not just a matter of routine. She spoke eloquently, and with emotion and passion, about the difficulty of the events we are describing today. It was one of those speeches, like that of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), that I wish there were more people around to hear; but I have no doubt that, through the miracles of modern science, more people will get the opportunity to hear the speeches. I congratulate hon. Members on what they have said.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), whose portfolio includes Ukraine. He is travelling on ministerial duties, but would have been pleased to answer the debate. It therefore falls to me to do so.
The powerful opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire and the contributions of other hon. Members have brought home the immense suffering and brutality of the Ukrainian holodomor. I remember my own contact with the Ukrainian community in north Manchester very well. My wife and I visited the Smedley Lane community centre numerous times. We went one year at Eastertime to decorate the eggs. I think my children, who are now 30 and 32, still have them somewhere in a corner of the bedroom. We watched beautiful dancing, and we enjoyed being with the Ukrainian community in Bury and north Manchester. It is nice to have the opportunity to pay tribute to their courtesy and friendliness towards one of the local MPs, and to thank them.
The hon. Member for Ealing North spoke as fluently as he always does. He puts us all to shame. There is never a note in sight, and he speaks with a fluency clearly based on deep general knowledge and understanding of the situation. He represents his community very well, and, having travelled with him to eastern Europe with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I know that those patterns are very deep. He spoke with immense clarity, on the Armenian issue and on Ukraine, and other issues; it was a powerful speech. His kindness towards me is appreciated, particularly when, as I am sure he knows, I am unable to agree with his conclusion and change the Government’s position. I appreciate the way he put things.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), speaking for the Scottish National party, drew attention to a part of British history—the Irish famine and the highland clearances—with echoes in the present context. My ancestors, the Robertsons, are buried in a common grave on Culloden field, and the story of the highland clearances and the writing of John Prebble have influenced many of us to try to understand more about rather forgotten elements of British history. Scots brought up in England do not hear a lot about Scottish history. However, history and memory more than a legal definition are at the heart of the matter. Definitions matter, and names and what things are called matter; but memory probably matters more—how communities remember what happened in the past, and recognising atrocities for what they are, whether a particular label is put on to those things.
When a community survives such a thing, the things that are highly pertinent are the development of tight relationships, as well as commemoration through poetry, song, dance or—particularly in the cases of communities that move abroad—spending time together and continuing the language and affection for the region. The debate must focus on the legal definition of genocide as the United Kingdom sees it, and the fact that, as I shall explain, the UK cannot change its position; but that does not detract from the understanding of memory on which this afternoon’s speeches have been based.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire movingly quoted a poem, but there are others, such as “Through the Eyes of a Child” by Halia Dmytryshyn. The poem describes Ukraine as a land of song and plenty whose soil is enriched with minerals, and all the food that is available, and then moves on to death and famine stalking the land like ravaging wolves. Such language in a way does more than a legal definition of genocide.
Having made those general remarks, let me return to the issue that my hon. Friend has raised. She certainly made clear the immense suffering and brutality of the Ukrainian holodomor. It was a devastating chapter in Soviet and Ukrainian history. My hon. Friend and the Ukrainian community in her constituency—and throughout the country—deserve credit for keeping the memory alive. In doing so, they honour the victims and strengthen our resolve to ensure that such horrors never happen again. The famine, which reached its darkest depths during 1932 and 1933, was a tragedy of such magnitude that it is difficult to comprehend; 85 years later it remains a shocking reminder of the deadly consequences of the policies and political goals of the Soviet Union. As the hon. Member for Ealing North made clear, it is hard to comprehend how such an event would be covered today when, with modern communications, we would be able to see much more of what was happening, or to know what the impact of that awareness would have been.
There is still some debate about the exact number of people who died during the holodomor and the extent to which Stalin and his Government set out systematically to destroy Ukraine alone. However, it is not in question that the famine caused appalling suffering, and that responsibility for it lay squarely with the leaders of the Soviet Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has called on the Government to recognise the holodomor as a genocide. I understand the basis for her request. I remember dealing with a debate in this Chamber with similar aims, about what happened to the Kurdish community under Saddam Hussein, and how difficult it was to respond. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) mentioned, there are certain legal requirements that successive British Governments have believed we must follow. It was hard, in responding, not to give the legal recognition that people would want. However, we believe that there are sound reasons to refrain from doing so.
The matters in question are essentially criminal ones, and we believe that the appropriate courts are best placed to make a judgment on them, taking all the evidence into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire asked in particular about direction to UK courts; but it is not necessarily for UK courts to decide. The legal definition can be decided by any court anywhere. Our approach has guided successive UK Governments in relation to other atrocities. The decisions to recognise as genocides the holocaust, the 1994 killings in Rwanda, and the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica came about only following judgments by appropriate courts in line with the definition set out in international law. Having been to Rwanda and Srebrenica and seen the after-effects, and spoken to people, I am aware that the definition matters. The definition was found appropriate in those circumstances, and used.
Earlier the Minister mentioned the contribution that Ukrainian people have made to this country. They made a huge contribution to coal mining and steel; there is a huge Ukrainian community in Sheffield. There was even a Member of Parliament—Simon Danczuk, who is no longer in the House—of Ukrainian origin. Many Ukrainian people will be listening today. Does the Minister agree that if the holodomor took place today, there would be no doubt that it should be called a genocide?
It is a good question, but I am not sure that I know the answer. As I have said, that is how the Kurdish community regards what happened to it under Saddam Hussein, and the chemical warfare inflicted on its people in relatively recent times. Because most, though not all, countries have recognised that the definition of genocide is a legal one, rather than a political act, I am not necessarily certain about what the hon. Gentleman says. I should hope that the world’s response would be not to allow something of that magnitude to happen, but I have spent the past couple of hours dealing with events in the middle east, from Yemen through to the activities of Daesh in Iraq. It would be nice to say that we live in a world where “never again” means never again, but I do not think for a moment that we do. I am not sure what the definition would be.
However, the world might be able to stop such events, and action might be taken against the perpetrators. That is now possible, as it was possible after Srebrenica, when people were taken to court through the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which identified those who had died. The identifications of the dead and of the places where they had died led to the identification of those who had killed them, so justice could be done. That is certainly something that would probably happen in the modern day. The purpose of today’s debate is the world’s recognition of the atrocity for what it was. That is the reason for the work of those who keep its memory alive—whatever dates are most appropriate for commemorating it.
The Minister mentioned what happened in Rwanda. That was never known as a genocide while it was happening, although the population talked about a genocide; it came afterwards. Does the Minister have an answer to the question why the world does not want to recognise something as genocide while it is happening? There is the Rohingya crisis at the moment, and there have been continuous genocides happening, but the world does not want to recognise them until they are over, which is too late to do anything about them.
I honestly do not believe that it is too late to do anything about them; the definition or designation of events, whether at the time or afterwards, does not prevent Governments of the world from taking appropriate action to deal with them. The fact that since 1948 it has been possible to designate events, and to strengthen the hand of the international community if it wants to take action in those cases, is important. Rwanda and Srebrenica were dealt with by a legal definition, and that is what the United Kingdom still depends on when dealing with more contemporary events. That the Ukrainian holodomor happened some 85 years ago makes no difference to the depth of pain and suffering endured, or to the horrors that my hon. Friend rightly described.
I am afraid that the Government remain convinced that recognition decisions should be based on credible judicial processes, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr agreed with that. Our stance on the holodomor will continue to follow that approach. He asked a couple of questions, to which I would like to respond. On our engagement with Ukraine, the UK stands shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian people in upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we remain committed to providing political and practical support to Ukraine over the long term. The UK has been at the forefront of international efforts to hold Russia to account for its aggression in Ukraine, and the EU, NATO, the G7, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN will continue to do so.
We remain clear that sanctions are linked to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and the end of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and we will continue to push for that commitment to be upheld. We believe that sanctions should continue until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented, and I have seen no suggestion that that should change in any way as a result of our leaving the EU.
As Members will know, my view is that our political relationships with the EU should be as close as possible. The United Kingdom has benefited enormously politically from our relationships throughout the EU when dealing with common crises in a common and united way. One of the more unfortunate consequences of the people’s decision to leave the European Union is that that is called into question, but I see no need for that to be the case. It is clearly in the United Kingdom’s interests, following March 2019, to ensure that political relationships remain close. We will not be at Council of Ministers meetings in future, but Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are particularly concerned to find alternative ways of ensuring the sorts of relationships that one could develop in the margins of those meetings.
Although I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, which it is perfectly fair to raise, my sense from the Department for International Development and the FCO, both of which I represent, is that there is determination to ensure that those close relationships with our friends and partners in the European Union are not broken in any way by our decision to take a different path in the future—a future in which they will be partners, but in a slightly different manner.
Before I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire to conclude the debate, let me say that our approach to the legal definition should in no way diminish the importance or enormity of the Ukrainian holodomor and what the Government think about it; nor does it diminish the horror that we feel about it. It remains vital to remember and reflect on such tragedies, and to recommit to working to ensure that they do not happen again. The importance of that cannot be overstated. In the 85 years since the beginning of the holodomor, countless people, both inside and outside Ukraine, have fought to keep alive the memory of those millions who died, and the Government pay tribute to their efforts. This chapter in Europe’s history is too important to be forgotten, and it is vital that it be commemorated, so that lessons can be learned for generations to come. We are indebted to all colleagues who have taken part in the debate for doing just that.
I am disappointed, to say the least—I am sure that the Minister recognises this—that we will not recognise the holodomor as a genocide. We recognised the holocaust as a genocide retrospectively, so surely we should do the same for the holodomor, given the wealth of evidence out there. I hope that the Minister will refer my thoughts to the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who is unable to be with us today.
I am really very disappointed—I cannot express how disappointed I am—that although this is the second debate that I have initiated in the House on this subject, we have not moved anywhere. I am also slightly disappointed that the Minister did not answer my four questions. Perhaps he or his Department will write to me with guidance about how the Ukrainian people can progress this matter, and in which courts, and on the best route forward. I thank the hon. Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), for participating in this debate. The more people who speak about this issue, the wider the awareness will be among people in this country, who will recognise it.
Finally, lots of books have been written about this genocide, but I recommend the latest one by Anne Applebaum, “Red Famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine”. One has only to look at the photographs of the people in that book, or any photographs from that period, to recognise that those people starved to death. We must never forget that.
I thank the Minister for responding to the debate; I am delighted that he was able to, as I know it was a bit of a push. I also thank other Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who had to rush to catch a plane home. I thank Members for participating; we must not forget this issue.