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Ukrainian Holodomor

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 23 November 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the case for recognising the Ukrainian Holodomor as a genocide.

My Lords, during the 20th century and indeed even more latterly, the world has witnessed grotesque acts against fellow human beings but, as one analyses the intentions of Stalin in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933, a common continuing theme emerges. In the eyes of Russia, then and now, the essential intention was and is the destruction of Ukraine as a separate sovereign entity. President Putin has openly declared his belief that Ukraine is an artificial construct and that the country is really an extension of Russia.

I have been to Ukraine, including Crimea, many times, as the former long-standing chairman of the British Ukrainian Society. Ukrainians have their own distinct history, and their own language, culture and identity, which they are today fighting passionately to defend. Absolutely ingrained in their collective consciousness is the Holodomor, with current events highlighting this horrific historic event more than ever. At the end of this month Ukraine will be commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, and indeed tomorrow I shall attend a special commemorative service in Westminster Abbey.

In my view today, restoring historical justice and honouring the memory of millions of innocent victims is more pressing than ever. The Holodomor was a manmade famine implemented by the communist leadership in Ukraine, but initiated and engineered by Joseph Stalin—and indeed the word “Holodomor” is derived from the Ukrainian words “death by hunger”. Estimates suggests that up to 10 million Ukrainians died. Ukraine is agriculturally very fertile, but at that time the country’s self-sufficiency was deliberately wrecked by the confiscation of food. The food was then directed towards Soviet industrial centres and armed forces, to fill government grain reserves, and to be sold abroad. The rules were ruthlessly applied. A grain procurement quota for Ukraine was introduced at such a high level to make supply impossible—thus the deployment of brutal force, repression and total seizure of grain and grain reserves took place. There was specific targeting of district farms and communities, making it impossible for people to leave these areas, while implementing full confiscation of any foodstuffs and banning trading activities. Armed groups instituted constant searches to enforce all this. Family pets, dogs and cats were the first to suffer.

The depth of the dehumanisation reached grotesque levels. The ultimate goal of the resulting artificially induced famine was to break the spirits of independent Ukrainian farmers and force them into collectivisation. Not one single village could meet the impossible quota. Soviet law made it clear that no grain could be given to feed people until the quota was met. Of course people tried to hide food—driven overwhelmingly by the need to feed their starving children, above all—but Communist Party officials, aided by military troops and secret police, ruthlessly sought out all possible hiding places. The result was indeed mass starvation. Desperate people sought to stay alive by eating tree bark, insects, weeds and leaves.

In August 1932, the Communist Party of the USSR introduced a law mandating the death penalty for what was designated “social property”—food, in other words. Some confiscated grain was exported to western markets. There are estimates that more than 3 million children born in 1932 and 1933 died of starvation. Some individuals tried to make their way to find work in urban areas to survive, but internal passports were introduced which stopped that. The military guarded the grain silos; horrifically, much food rotted. The winter corpses lined the roads. Mass graves were dug. Suicide was common. I dwell on the systematic and ruthless way in which that mass starvation was brought about simply because any ignorance of the full scale of the atrocities needs to be dispelled. For many, there is an echo of what happened then in the denial and confiscation of grain for political purposes that we witnessed after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

I have tried to describe graphically the horrors of 1932-33 in Ukraine and the grotesque system put in place to effect the inevitable outcome. Surely “genocide” is the only word that can describe what happened. The genocide convention is an international treaty that criminalises genocide and that has been unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Article II of that convention defines genocide as

“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—


“killing members of the group … causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group … deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part … imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group … forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.

That aptly describes this unspeakable example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification and, in so doing, the destruction of an independent nation.

It is worth noting that, for more than half a century, it was impossible to discuss this historic event openly. Indeed, under Stalin’s rule, even mentioning the famine carried the risk of execution or being sent to the gulag. Additionally, all evidence of the scale and true causes of the famine were hidden or fabricated. The statisticians who undertook the national census, which revealed the huge fall in the population, were killed. The Holodomor was written out of the Communist historical narrative; indeed, today, there is no specific recognition of this unique event in Russia.

In his book Proletarian Journey, Fred E Beal wrote:

“In 1933, I had occasion to call on Petrovsky, the President of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic … I said … ‘They say that five million people have died this year … What are we going to tell them?’ ‘Tell them nothing!’ answered President Petrovsky. ‘What they say is true. We know that millions are dying. That is unfortunate, but the glorious future of the Soviet Union will justify that. Tell them nothing!’”

A considerable number of other countries have recognised the Holodomor as genocide, as well as states in the United States, whose role in defending and protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the current conflict is to be fulsomely applauded. I attended the Holodomor genocide memorial ceremony in Washington DC in November 2015. Since 2006, the Holodomor has been recognised as genocide, starting with Ukraine, 33 other UN member states and the European Parliament; indeed, the Pope supports it too.

The Holodomor was indeed a calculated act of terror. The question is clearly: why should our country recognise the Holodomor as genocide? Surely now is exactly the right time. It is a clear message that we do not tolerate such cruelty and injustice. It would be received with jubilation by the people of Ukraine, whose gratitude and admiration for us is heart-warming, as in many respects we have done more than any other European country in supporting Ukraine in its hour of need. Also, so endearingly, this would be so well received by all the Ukrainians who are permanently or temporarily living in this country.

During a debate in May in another place, the Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office said that the Government’s policy was to ensure that genocide determination should remain above politics, lobbying and individual political and national interests. However, he made it clear that the Government recognise the horrific nature of the Holodomor saga. The Minister indicated that His Majesty’s Government would recognise the event as genocide only if it was recognised by a court—for example, the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice or national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process. He confirmed the United Kingdom as part of the G7’s core group of nations looking at what additional mechanisms might be required to work alongside the International Criminal Court when it comes to countering crimes in Ukraine. He said that this was work in progress, so I hope that my noble friend the Minister can update us about that. In consequence, our Government have officially recognised only five instances where genocide has occurred: acts of genocide against the Yazidi people, acts of genocide in Srebrenica, Rwanda and Cambodia, and the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945.

I am grateful to have secured this debate. Although the rule is normally that debates cannot deal with issues from more than 30 years ago, it has been made possible by the clear relevance of the dramatic events in Ukraine today. Finding a way to accept the Holodomor as genocide would be a tribute to, and a remembrance of, all its millions of victims, underlying the terrible truth of this mass starvation. The time for recognition is now.

My Lords, the whole House is deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating today’s debate, for the way he introduced it and for the work that he has done for the people of Ukraine over so many years. In reinforcing his speech, I will divide my remarks into two parts—first, why the Holodomor matters in understanding events in Ukraine today and, secondly, why and how the determination of what is a genocide is an issue that still has to be resolved.

I first heard about the Holodomor when I visited Ukraine in 1989 with a small jubilee campaign delegation. I have never forgotten the sheer courage and determination of pro-democracy activists whom I met on the streets of Lviv as they risked their lives to throw off the shackles and chains of the Soviet Union. We met people whose family, in the preceding generation, had lost their lives in the Holodomor, Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukraine—the man-made famine that convulsed Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. As Stalin replaced Ukraine’s small farms with state-run collectives and punished independent-minded Ukrainians, the Holodomor—a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death”—led to millions of people dying. The writer Alex de Waal described the Holodomor as

“a hybrid … of a famine caused by calamitous social-economic policies and one aimed at a particular population for repression or punishment”.

In Ukraine, I visited Greek Catholic churches that Stalin had closed 40 years earlier and where, every day, fresh flowers were defiantly left at the doors to replace the ones removed earlier by Soviet soldiers. Religious belief was violently repressed. I met courageous people, such as Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk and Ivan Gel, a politician and dissident, a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki group and the Ukrainian Christian Democratic Party. Between them, they had spent 17 and 18 years in the Soviet death camp at Perm. I met a young priest who as a punishment had been sent three years earlier to Chernobyl, without any protective clothing, to clear radioactive waste.

Those people wanted this story known, and I was grateful to the BBC and the Independent newspaper for enabling us to do so. Stories matter, not least the story of the Holodomor, because we forget too easily the price that has been paid for our liberties. The stories matter because they illustrate why, even as we meet here at Westminster, Ukrainians are fighting to the bitter end to protect their hard-won freedoms, and why they will resist Putin’s attempts to resurrect a Russian empire, which ultimately means the death of their nation. They will resist his attempts to crush democratic rights and sovereignty, to roll the clock back and reverse the gains made across Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Putin’s deluded idea that these brave people would line the streets with flowers, cheering the new imperial occupation and the reconquest of their country, simply beggars belief.

Since Putin instigated his illegal war, under the obscene pretext of protecting people from genocide, I have often thought about the people I met then and since, and about the courage and bravery of Ukraine’s anti-Soviet, faith-led, pro-democracy movement. I have often thought about the price of political progress and the illegal demonstrations I attended where Ukrainians, in their thousands, proudly held aloft their blue and yellow flags of defiance, and how religious freedom had been so violently repressed. As I have watched the consequences of Putin’s orders to destroy vast acres of arable land and their crops, to prevent grain reaching hungry people in the developing world, especially Africa, and to abduct and remove Ukrainian children, I have thought back to the conversations I had 35 years ago about Stalin’s Holodomor.

Stalin’s Holodomor, like Putin’s today, was an entirely manmade catastrophe, leading to anything from 3.5 million to 5 million deaths, or possibly the figure that the noble Lord, Lord Risby, gave the House: as many as 10 million. However, motive not numbers is the issue in determining genocide. I will come back to that later, but many historians regard this technically, formally and properly as a genocide. The Holodomor was methodically planned; it was executed by denying the producers of the food the sustenance necessary for survival. It seems especially cruel and perverse to have used food as a genocidal weapon in the breadbasket of Europe. As Ukrainians resorted to eating grass and acorns—even cats and dogs, as we have heard—Stalin banned any reference to famine. His “Five Stalks of Grain” decree stated that anyone, even a child, caught taking produce from a collective field could be shot or imprisoned for stealing socialist property. In 1933, 2,000 people were executed. While people were starving to death in the terror famine, the Soviet state stole over 4 million tonnes of Ukraine’s grain, enough to meet the needs of 12 million people in a year.

In 1997, I founded the Roscoe lectures, a public lecture series hosted by Liverpool John Moores University, and in 2009 I invited the writer, Anne Applebaum, to give one of those lectures. It was entitled Hitler and Stalin: the 20th Century’s Cruellest Tyrants. Subsequently, in 2018, she published her magnificent Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. In it, she says the famine launched by the Soviet leadership was

“a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

In harrowing testimonies, we hear from Tetiana Pavlychka, who remembered that her sister Tamara

“had a large, swollen stomach, and her neck was long and thin like a bird’s neck. People didn’t look like people— they were more like starving ghosts.”

Applebaum quotes another survivor who remembered that his mother

“looked like a glass jar, filled with clear spring water. All her body that could be seen . . . was see-through and filled with water, like a plastic bag.”

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Applebaum was able to access previously unseen archival material, which she says

“backs up the testimony of the survivors … Starvation was the result … of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes; the roadblocks that prevented peasants from seeking work or food; the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages; the restrictions on barter and trade; and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch, unmoved, as their neighbours died of hunger.”

She cites extraordinary statistics, which graphically illustrate the scale of the deaths and the lives cut short—the noble Lord, Lord Risby, referred to this. Applebaum says that females born in Ukraine in 1933

“lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five.”

Such terrible experiences were within the living memory of some of those I met in 1989. Others had been told the stories by parents and grandparents, who had vowed never to forget and to use every sinew to struggle for a free Ukraine. Lest anyone imagine that such shocking experiences can easily be expunged or erased, as the son of a native Irish speaker, I can say that my mother told me the stories of the Irish famine which had occurred 100 years earlier. The deaths and emigration of millions poisoned British-Irish relations for decades afterwards.

What memories are being made in Ukraine today? In addition to the daily bombing of civilians, the appropriation of Ukrainian territory and mass displacements, Putin is a mirror image of Stalin and he is committing food terrorism by purposefully destroying Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure and stealing Ukrainian grain and agricultural machinery. I initiated the debate about this in your Lordships’ House on 21 July this year. Since then, we have seen vivid footage of his militias setting fire to fields, scorching the earth and reducing crops to ash. There have been reports from eastern Ukraine of people drinking water from radiators and puddles, and even killing and cooking stray dogs to avoid starvation, as we have heard.

It is clear why memories of the past are so relevant in the present, yet most people in Britain have never heard of the Holodomor and that should not be the case. That the crime was committed by a communist regime does not make it any less bad than a crime committed by a Nazi regime.

I commend James Bartholomew of the Foundation for the History of Totalitarianism, which has been working to make the Holodomor better known. It has created a school assembly plan and two lesson plans, all of which are free to download from its website. It has actively promoted these resources to schools. It also recently produced a booklet on the subject and metal lapel badges. It held a competition to design a candleholder with “Holodomor” clearly displayed, so that on the appropriate day people can place a candle in their front window and passers-by will know why. The Holodomor should find more of a place in the national curriculum or the exams set by the various exam boards. I hope the Minister will comment on that proposal when he replies.

The noble Lord, Lord Risby, alluded to a second matter, which I also want to raise. Last year, Dr Ewelina Ochab and I published State Responses to Crimes of Genocide. I gave a copy to the Minister, as it challenges the long-standing policy of the FCDO on the determination of what is and is not a genocide. It builds on the all-party amendments passed by this House with three-figure majorities, and Private Members’ Bills, the fifth and latest of which has just been selected again in this year’s ballot for new Bills. I am particularly pleased to see my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead in the Chamber, because his expertise and knowledge was enormously helpful in framing the amendments to the Trade Bill.

Two recent Prime Ministers agreed with us that the determination should be made by the High Court of England and Wales, not by politicians. The FCDO prevented that change, while trotting out the repeated line that only a court could decide, knowing that no court is in a position to do so. A former Minister and Member of this House told me that it is a deliberate sleight of hand.

In the case of the Holodomor, the Canadian Government, Australian Parliament, United States Congress and others listed in the excellent House of Lords note for this debate labelled the Holodomor as a genocide by Stalin’s Soviet regime. In November 2022, the German Federal Parliament passed a resolution put forward by the parties of its coalition Government declaring the Holodomor a genocide, as did the European Parliament in December 2022.

As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Risby, during a House of Commons debate in May, Leo Docherty MP, a Minister at the FCDO, said that the UK Government’s policy would ensure that genocide determinations remain

“above politics, above lobbying and above individual, political or national interests”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/05/23; col. 518.]

In reality, however, the refusal to allow the English courts to make this decision means that genocide determination remains entirely political and subject to all the things that Mr Docherty says he opposes. It is an illusionist’s conjuring trick worthy of Houdini. The new Foreign Secretary has the chance to put this right. Of course, the Chinese, who refuse even to allow a debate about reports concerning Uighurs at the UN, might not like it.

The Holodomor, like the Armenian genocide, which is also unrecognised by the FCDO, was about the targeting of a specific group of people. Ukrainians were subjected to mass starvation, exile and displacement, were sent to gulags and suffered grievously. This Soviet genocide was of a piece with other communist genocide in Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. As we watch the crime of starvation waged against the Ukrainians right now, we need to recollect that this is not the first time that this crime has been committed against them.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the following, from Dr Ochab:

“A newly published investigation of the Starvation Mobile Justice Team, a team of experts supporting the work of Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General, has revealed evidence of starvation tactics used by Russian soldiers. As they said, the techniques were ‘designed to break the Ukrainian people.’ Their findings, published on June 2, 2023, indicate that they collected credible evidence of numerous incidents recorded in Chernihiv that help to establish a track record of ‘repeated and/or coordinated attacks resulting in objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population being targeted’”.

Global Rights Compliance has called for the prosecution of the crime of starvation and says that it is crucial to explore the crime of starvation against the definition of genocide in Article II of the genocide convention. Is the Foreign Office involved in helping to do that? Global Rights Compliance says that

“mass starvation has long been described as a ‘societal torture’”

and that

“when directed against—in the case of Ukraine—a national group, the concerted attack on the very foundation and fabric of such groups can be indicative of genocidal intent”.

To end, recognising past and present genocides for what they are is a step to ensuring justice and accountability and a step towards deterring and preventing future genocides—a word which itself means the breaking of the human family, the crime above all crimes. That is why this initiative from the noble Lord, Lord Risby, is so important and so welcome.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating this debate and for a brilliant, concise and clear statement of the case. It is always slightly difficult to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton: as noble Lords know, he prepares extremely well, so you are always worried that he has used most of the arguments that could be thought of in a debate such as this. But I am very pleased to join him.

I carry with me the apologies of my noble friend Lord Purvis, who would have been here but is on a parliamentary delegation to the Falklands. I very much hope that he comes back with the rest of the delegation and that they are not the first line of defence against the new Argentinian President. I am not simply standing in for my noble friend: I have had a long-term interest in Russian economic history, which was one of the formative studies of my life that made me a social democrat—even before being a Liberal Democrat.

As we start this debate, it pays us all to think of the families in our country who have done so much over the last year to look after families from Ukraine. I know a number in Winchester and where I live. It is a remarkable tribute to those families that they have done that, and, if I may say so, to the Government for the firm support that they have given, consistently with the rest of the country, to the people of Ukraine.

The war has revived the names of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa, which all featured so closely in the story of the famine of the 1930s. It is a fact that so much of the current situation in Ukraine stems from that experience of the 1930s and of Soviet colonialism. The noble Lord has already mentioned Anne Applebaum’s writing. She talked in her 2018 book about the consequences of that experience in Ukraine. It allowed or encouraged a tolerance of corruption; it caused a great wariness of state institutions, even democratic ones; and she even talked, slightly surprisingly, about what she called the “political passivity” of Ukraine as a result of that experience. If she were writing now, I would hope that she might have a slightly different view about that since February 2022.

The other quite interesting aspect of recent history is obviously Russia’s attempt to systematically eliminate diversity, language and culture in Ukraine in the 1930s. It is a sequitur of that that Russians still see Ukraine not as a separate state but as part of their own nation.

We have not mentioned this, but the inventor of the word genocide comes from the Polish-Jewish Ukrainian city of Lviv—Raphael Lemkin. I will have a little bit more to say about him in a moment, because I think it is relevant to the story.

First, I will make a few points about the famine. There is no doubt that it was the breakdown in the system of the mixed economy that the Soviet Union was experimenting with in the 1920s that led to the full state industrial policy of the late 1920s and the need for wheat exports to feed the growing urban population in the Soviet Union and also to provide revenue from exports for its industrialisation. Ukraine was probably the most advanced agricultural area in the Soviet Union at that time, but it was also the most difficult for Stalin. Modernisation and collectivism would stimulate, inevitably, resistance from peasant communities and stir national sentiments—which is exactly what happened. The remarkable thing is that, and I think this was mentioned in an earlier speech, there were sufficient exports of grain going out of the Soviet Union that could have fed 5 million—the noble Lord talked about 12 million—and would have been enough to stop the starvation of the 4 million or so people who are said to have died.

We must remember that the 1930s was not a world of mechanised, computerised combine harvesters and even fertilisers. Land was largely manually farmed. Livestock was important for providing transport and movement. The central planners in Moscow had little appreciation of the importance of climate for individual harvests, or that crop yields did not necessarily rise year on year. The skills, motivation and knowledge of the kulaks were not replicated, as they were deported and extinguished by the Communist Party purges. Once the rural rhythm of rotation of crops, providing fodder for livestock and fertilising the ground with animal manure was upset, poor harvests followed and famine was a result. Soviet planners became more frustrated and, with the peasantry alienated from the collectivisation system, the result was that the Soviet authorities sought to impose their will through unrealistic quotas, deportation, resettlement, travel restrictions and purges on farms and villages.

Paralleling this were the purges not just of rural areas but of party officials in Ukraine and of the energetic cultural leaders of the country who were questioning the policy of the Soviet state and were likely to cause trouble to Stalin. The crackdown on the so-called hoarding of grain by the peasantry diminished stocks for the human population and for the animals needed to provide movement, traction and transport. One of the saddest stories is the 200,000 registered arrests—there were probably more—for gleaning grain from the harvests in the fields. It is like the miners going through the coal tips in the General Strike.

The forcible removal of food from people’s homes followed the ill-fated decree by Molotov and Stalin in 1932. Those very names send a chill through one’s back. In the next 12 months, millions died. Some died even when the spring crops came—people starved because their bodies were overwhelmed by the availability of this food, just like the inmates initially experienced in the concentration camps at the end of the war.

Was it genocide? Here I return to Raphael Lemkin, because, by the narrow definition of genocide agreed by the UN after the war, under the Soviet influence, it is not strictly genocide. This is one of our problems. However, Lemkin himself, who coined the term genocide, said in an essay in 1953, Soviet Genocide in Ukraine, that the USSR attacked Ukrainian elites precisely because they were

“small and therefore easily eliminated, and so it is upon these groups particularly that the full force of the Soviet axe has fallen, with its familiar tools of mass murder, deportation and forced labour, exile and starvation”.

We know that, after the war, the Soviets wanted to have a narrow definition of genocide because of their own culpability. This came to mean the physical elimination of an entire ethnic group in a manner similar to the Holocaust. The definition that is used legally for genocide is quite narrow, and the Holodomor does not actually meet this interpretation: it did not eliminate every Ukrainian. Sadly, we also have to accept that some Ukrainians were complicit in the Soviet actions. It is not surprising that the Soviets stopped the wider definition that could have applied.

Anne Applebaum notes that, during this part of the century, since the opening up of Ukraine and Russia, there had been quite a push to get people to recognise the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s as genocide. In 2018, she said that she thought it had probably had its moment and that the attempts had not got very far. She would almost certainly think very differently now. The current war has revived the concept that we should refer to this as genocide. As speakers have already said, it is important to the Ukrainian narrative, and to avoid its assimilation back into Russia, that we revive this concept. Russia’s complicity at the end of the Second World War in its defining of the word genocide makes an even stronger case for us to look at this definition again. I ask the Minister: can the British Government provide a lead now? If they cannot recognise it immediately, can they start discussions so that we can look again at whether the term genocide can apply to the Ukraine famine, as so many other countries have started to do?

There are two other conclusions to draw from this history and the relevance of today. One is that state power has to be subject to democratic checks and balances. A democracy is very complex and it is not always a straight line, but it is incredibly important where state power can create these sorts of tragedies. Ukraine will need a huge amount of help, both economically and politically, to strengthen these checks and balances. That is one of the problems of its history. However, when we look back on that history I hope we will challenge ourselves to ensure that it never happens again.

I have one final thought. The incredible realisation from going through the story is the question of how Putin ever thought he could easily overcome Ukraine and then rule it. He might have been successful in the short term but in the long term it would have been impossible. With Ukraine’s history, culture, language and resilience, which it is now showing, it would have resisted, as it did in the 1930s and as it will in the future. We wish Ukraine well. I hope we can give an encouraging sign by seeking to move this debate onwards.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating this debate. The consensus and resolve across this House, and the commitment of the United Kingdom more broadly to support Ukraine, is driving back Russia’s barbarous war machine. It has never been needed so much as today. The war in Ukraine is, of course, 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 the critical offensives they have been launching, it is crucial that they know that nations around the world will support their fight without wavering. I know the Minister has heard me say this before, but the Opposition are at one with the Government in giving firm support to Ukraine for as long as it takes.

We will continue to support Ukraine’s brave defenders and its people in their quest for freedom, peace and justice. That is absolutely essential. In the light of this debate, we must also continue to reflect on the immense historical suffering that 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 cruel 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 and which, as we have heard from all noble Lords, culminated in the deaths of millions of people.

The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv contains evidence that is incredibly moving and shocking. Everybody should recognise the reality of what happened to the Ukrainian people. It is very sad that some of the exhibits in that museum have been removed for safety reasons 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. The barbarism we saw 90 years ago carries as much salience today as ever, particularly given what we have seen since. It is a tragedy that today we can again 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.

A great deal of what we know about the Holodomor came to us thanks to the bravery of a Welshman called Gareth Jones. Certainly, I think many noble Lords in the Chamber will have heard of Gareth from the excellent and moving feature film from 2019 called “Mr Jones”. Of course, many noble Lords will be aware that it is suspected that he was murdered by the Soviet NKVD in 1935. So little changes, of course.

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 in that it 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 and launched a mendacious campaign against Gareth Jones, trying 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. We have seen concerted attempts by Russia to lie about food supplies to the rest of the world and weaponise them. In a dreadful parallel of the way it used food as a weapon of war in the Holodomor, it is now doing so with the rest of the world. As I know the Minister has responded to, the impact on Africa in particular could be horrendous.

I hope the Minister will be able to update the House on the steps being taken to support the rebuilding of Ukraine, particularly its agricultural capacity and ability to thrive economically in the future. June’s reconstruction conference represented a critical moment in our support for Ukraine and the diplomatic coalition trying to achieve that. The Minister has heard me say this before, but I will repeat it: one area that was missing from the King’s Speech, given the Motion that was passed unanimously by the Commons, is legislation on the seizure of Russian state assets to repurpose them for reconstruction in Ukraine. The Commons Motion was for legislation to be passed in 90 days, and the King’s Speech would have been an apt opportunity, albeit a little late, to reassert the Government’s plans for that. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some positive news on what we will do to repurpose those state assets and to hold Russia’s Government and leader to account for what they have been doing.

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 90 years ago, but we can and we must, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, so eloquently put, take resolute steps to prevent them happening again today.

Given the comments that have been made today, I have a fundamental question, and I suspect I know what the answer will be. It is clear that these were appalling historic atrocities in the Holodomor and that they deserve proper recognition. As we have heard, on 25 May, the Commons resolved:

“That this House believes that the Holodomor was a genocide against the Ukrainian people”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/23; col. 520.]

I hope the Minister can tell us the Government’s response to the elected Chamber and this debate. I am sure that the Minister will repeat the legal defence that the department makes, but this is a political issue and something that we need to respond to. It is the wish of the House of Commons, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively this afternoon.

My Lords, first, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Risby for securing this debate and maintaining a spotlight on the horrors inflicted on the Ukrainian people during the Holodomor. As all noble Lords have alluded to, who would have thought that the tragedy from that time, death by hunger, would be a reality not just for people in Ukraine but—because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the food basket of Europe, and the impact on food security—for half a billion people around the world today in 2023?

I recognise that this has been a short and limited debate in terms of contributions. That does not take away from the quality and depth of the contributions made. I of course welcome the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, to his role. He said in his opening remarks that he would be more than just a stand-in for the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and his contribution demonstrated just that. I recognised much of the insight and details he has brought to this debate. He mentioned that he followed the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who comes very well prepared. I agree, but the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is not just well prepared; he knows the subject of human rights and issues of genocide inside out, if I could put it that way. I share the noble Lord’s comments and also recognise the experience the noble Lord, Lord Alton, brings, along with the expert way my noble friend Lord Risby introduced the debate.

I agree with noble Lords that we must never stop learning from those events, nor allow the millions who perished to be forgotten. Therefore, when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister visited Ukraine, he lit a candle in memory of those who lost their lives in that awful event. There is universal agreement that the Holodomor was one of the darkest chapters in Ukrainian and European history. As my noble friend Lord Risby said, it was a vast and horrific man-made disaster that killed millions of innocent women, children and men.

The calls that I have heard again today from my noble friend and all noble Lords on the issue of genocide determination are wholly understandable. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pre-empted, my response reflects the fact that the Government’s position on genocide determination has not changed: it remains legal rather than political. The Government’s long-standing position—indeed, the position of successive Governments—has been that any judgment on whether genocide has or has not occurred is a matter for a competent court, after consideration of all the evidence. The approach also ensures, I would add, that our genocide determinations are independent of politics and above perceived political or national interest. It is my belief that it also allows, importantly, for legal legitimacy and underpinning.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked various questions. Having done various debates in this respect, and particularly when we were looking at the Trade Bill, for example, I would say that progress has been made on this issue, at least on certain elements, though not in terms of this particular issue. Looking forward, some of the trade elements and the scrutiny of Parliament, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also spoke to, are important parts of holding a Government accountable as well.

I assure noble Lords that, notwithstanding what I have just said, it does not detract from our recognition of the appalling events of the Holodomor, nor from our recognition of the brutality, which the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, among others, talked about, of Stalin’s policies and regime. Nor does it in any way dilute our determination to remember the victims of the Holodomor, as my right honourable friend did in his visit. Our ambassador in Ukraine and other members of our diplomatic team regularly participate in events to commemorate those tragic events. Today, we stand firm in our support for Ukrainians, amid the current appalling atrocities committed against them by the regime in Moscow, as Mr Putin continues to wage his illegal war.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned various studies, including one, if I heard him correctly, to which he also contributed. If I may, I have not had a chance to look through all of that, but I promise I will write to the noble Lord on the specifics of that report. It is true—I agree with all noble Lords who have spoken—that in the current invasion of Ukraine, which, let us not forget, started back in 2014, Russian forces have now killed thousands of Ukrainians. My noble friend Lord Risby is right that, since the full-scale invasion, it has impacted the whole of Ukraine’s population: 50% of Ukraine’s pre-war population, a total of 21 million people, have needed humanitarian assistance, either inside or outside Ukraine. Russian forces have attacked Ukrainian hospitals, schools and energy supplies and turned towns and cities into ruins.

In the areas of Ukraine liberated from Russian forces, they have tragically, as has been discovered, left mass graves. There is also, as I am acutely aware from my responsibility in leading on the issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict, evidence of rape and torture on a quite unimaginable scale. Last week, we invited noble Lords to the FCDO to hear first-hand testimony from Ukrainian survivors of Russian atrocities. I put on record my thanks to the Ukrainian NGOs SaveUkraine and Human Rights Centre ZMINA for the support they gave to four witnesses who shared their experiences. That is what is guiding us in our current approach to this conflict. I acknowledge once again the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, which I know was appreciated by my noble friend Lord Cameron, about the full alignment of His Majesty’s Opposition on the issue of our support for Ukraine, be it military, humanitarian, political or diplomatic, and of course on accountability, which I will come on to.

I think we are all agreed—and we have seen the issuing of warrants to that effect from the ICC—that there is one person who is ultimately responsible for the suffering of millions of Ukrainian, and that is of course Vladimir Putin. Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, there have been more than 250,000 casualties. As we speak, Russia is mounting its third wave of attacks on Avdiivka and again continues to flounder, at horrendous cost not just to Ukrainian lives but to Russian lives as well. It is very clear that Mr Putin has launched and started a war he cannot win. As winter approaches, I assure noble Lords that we continue to stand with the Ukrainian people as they resist this illegal invasion. In the last three months, they have pushed Russia back in the Black Sea and are opening vital sea trade routes for the Ukrainian economy and global food supplies.

I am sure noble Lords agree that Russia has faced a more united international response than it ever imagined. We will continue to work with our allies to ensure that Ukraine gets the support it needs in this war against Russian aggression, secure a lasting peace and, importantly, bring to justice those responsible for war crimes and atrocities, in accordance with international law. In this regard, the UK is at the forefront of international support for Ukraine. Our military, humanitarian and economic support now amounts to over £9.3 billion. Last week, it was right that my noble friend Lord Cameron travelled to Kyiv, in his first overseas visit as Foreign Secretary, to make clear to the people and the President of Ukraine, through the direct insights he gained, that the UK and our partners will support Ukraine and its people for as long as it takes. Again, we have seen that message resonate in this important debate today.

Last week, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary also launched the new Unity facility between the UK insurer Marsh McLennan and the Ukrainian Government. This will also provide further support to the Ukrainians and provide affordable shipping insurance for grain and other food supplies from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Seeing how topical this issue of hunger is, from the abhorrent events we saw in Ukraine many years ago, it is right that we seek to use innovative tools to ensure that grain and other food supplies from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports can be assured. This past Monday we also hosted an international conference on alleviating global hunger, and I know that several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins, were present.

I will talk briefly about war crimes and genocide determination. While I have outlined once again the Government’s position, I also want to highlight what we are currently doing. We are looking to the future and delivering justice for the Ukrainian people. In this regard, as noble Lords will be aware, we are supporting the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor-general to help them investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes. Alongside the EU and the US, we have established the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group to co-ordinate international support to Ukraine’s war crimes investigations. As I have already mentioned, we welcome the step taken by the International Criminal Court to hold those at the top of the Russian regime to account, including Mr Putin. Noble Lords may be aware that in March we co-hosted, alongside the Netherlands, a Justice Ministers’ conference in London, which delivered enhanced financial, practical and technical support for the ICC’s investigations in Ukraine.

In May, the Prime Minister and other Council of Europe leaders signed an agreement in Iceland to create an international register of damage caused by Russian aggression against Ukraine. As part of that delegation, I saw again the strength of unity and support for Ukraine. The United Kingdom has now joined a core group of countries to explore options to investigate and prosecute the crimes of aggression committed in and against Ukraine, including a potential special tribunal.

We are also determined, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, that Ukraine has all the resources it needs to get back on its feet. It is a proud nation, with people rich in their outlook. We hosted the Ukrainian Recovery Conference in June, raising over $60 billion towards Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction. This included £3 billion of UK guarantees to the World Bank’s lending, up to £250 million on new capital for British international investment, a £20 million UK investment to expand insurance for Ukraine and a new €50 billion EU facility. We are also helping to draw up more risk insurance schemes with European partners, which will provide the UK and other countries with the reassurance they need to play a full role in helping Ukraine to rebuild. The private sector has an important role and our summer conference reflected that.

To conclude, I thank my noble friend Lord Risby, who plays a very able role in supporting Ukraine—I regret that I was unable to join him recently for a dinner in this respect—not just for tabling this debate but in looking forward to focus on what can be done with Ukrainians on the ground, and businesses in particular. Turning to the key subject in front of us, the Holodomor and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine are two of the darkest chapters in Ukraine’s history. While our stance remains that any determination of genocide must be made by the courts, as I have mentioned, that does not detract from our recognition of the Holodomor as the most appalling chapter in the history of Ukraine, which resonates today—once again—in the shadow of Russia’s aggression.

The United Kingdom is at the forefront of an alliance that will help Ukraine prevail over Mr Putin’s forces. We are helping the Ukrainian and International Criminal Court investigators to bring those responsible for appalling acts of brutality to justice, and we share Ukraine’s determination that Russia’s illegal war there must fail and justice must be done. As President Zelensky said in May in the Hague:

“There can be no peace without justice”.

Our desire for Ukraine to prevail, and for justice to prevail, remains something that unites us across your Lordships’ House. I remain confident that it will continue to do so and that we will continue to stand up for what is right. Slava Ukraini.

My Lords, I thank all those noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon. I start with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, whose instinctive humanitarian feelings always resonate so incredibly powerfully in this Chamber. His experience of Ukraine and what he saw and understood was such a powerful message of support for the country, for all the right reasons.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, who brings a considerable understanding of the Soviet system and its history. I thought his contribution was excellent in so many ways, although I would just very gently and politely mention, if I may, that there is a genocide convention. There is something which has been incorporated into the United Nations, and of course many countries, in addition to the European Parliament, have accepted the definition of genocide. It is up and running and I am sure that other countries will pursue it.

As for the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, it is just so gratifying that in our Parliament, we have exactly the same view about the horror story that has descended on the Ukrainian people, echoing the barbarity that happened in the 1930s. However, the question politely posed by the noble Lord, given the views that have been forcefully expressed in another place, has an echo which requires closer thought by our Government at this time. I say to my noble friend the Minister, who, I know, is just part of the incredible committal of our country towards helping Ukraine: it is so gratifying to hear all the measures that are being put in place to deal with what happens post-conflict, not only in restoring the economy but in taking action against those who brought this brutality about. It is very gratifying indeed.

I thank all of your Lordships for their very valuable contributions. This has been an excellent moment to reflect on the parallel between what is happening today and what happened in those dreadful years ago.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 4.46 pm.