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Terezin Declaration

Volume 805: debated on Monday 27 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards fulfilling their commitments as a party to the Terezin Declaration of 30 June 2009; and what discussions they have had with the government of Poland about the restitution of property seized from Polish Jewish citizens during the period of Nazi occupation.

My Lords, the United Kingdom continues to meet its commitments to the Terezin declaration, particularly in Holocaust education and remembrance. We are in regular conversation with the Polish Government on the restitution of property seized during the Nazi occupation. The UK post-Holocaust issues envoy, my noble friend Lord Pickles, is working with the US and other parties to call on Poland to pass legislation to provide restitution of or compensation for private property.

My Lords, I have been asking the same Question here for 11 years and getting the same response of no progress or promises. Poland is the only country in the EU that has not passed legislation to deal with one of the greatest thefts in history. Bills have been repeatedly introduced and withdrawn there, Bills that contained conditions that would have excluded the vast majority of Holocaust survivors. Will the Minister accept my proposal to follow the example of the American legislation called the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, and secure an annual report to Parliament about the return of Jewish and non-Jewish property? Will he raise it at the Belvedere Forum every year? Will the UK use its position in the Council of Europe to press for a human rights agenda focusing on Poland and restitution, as required under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

My Lords, I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s question; I remember answering the first Question on this issue back in 2014. As the Human Rights Minister, I remain committed, along with my noble friend Lord Pickles and others, and I assure her that we continue to raise the issue regularly with Poland, bilaterally through our ambassador most recently, and in international for a—and I take on board the suggestion of the Council of Europe.

My Lords, the Government clearly find it difficult to make progress with Poland on this issue. However, in many ways, recognition can be as important as restitution in healing the terrible wounds of the Nazi era. But Poland obstructs the placing of inexpensive Stolpersteine—plaques commemorating Nazi victims—even though these have helped the healing process elsewhere in Europe. Have the Government pressed Poland to stop such obstruction, and if not, why not?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we continue to raise regularly the importance of this issue with the Polish authorities. I have worked with Poland directly on broader issues concerning freedom of religion or belief, on which Poland stands very strong. I assure him that we will continue in our campaign to ensure that the important issue of restitution is kept at the forefront of our discussions.

My Lords, I need to be clear that I will not be claiming from Poland, despite my late mother being born there and my having a grandmother who disappeared in Poland. However, as the UK was a signatory to the Terezin agreement, what plans, others than those that the Minister has enumerated, have the Government to fulfil their obligations to claimants? Nothing has moved on. Can the Government, for instance, assist claimants who wish to bring action against Poland under the European Court of Human Rights?

My Lords, I have already stated what the Government are doing through their bilateral efforts with Poland and through multilateral fora. On the wider issue of the Terezin declaration, I assure the noble Lord that the UK remains fully committed to meeting its commitments to the declaration, including important elements of commemorating the Holocaust and engaging on the very issues that the noble Lord has raised.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to our ambassador in Warsaw, Jonathan Knott, for his persistent commitment to restitution? His meeting last week with the Speaker of the Polish Parliament helped pave the way for the withdrawal of the Bill on Warsaw property rights from the lower House. This legislation would have been a major obstacle to restitution. This week, we should see the publication of the United States Government’s response to Congress on the JUST Act, focusing on compliance with the Terezin declaration. Will my noble friend pledge that we will work alongside our allies in the United States and Poland to see that justice is brought to the families of Holocaust victims whose property was confiscated by the Nazis?

My Lords, first, I join my noble friend in paying tribute to our ambassador to Poland, who, as my noble friend said, recently intervened on an important issue of legislation in Poland. I also join him in praising the efforts of other key partners, including the United States. When I was last in the US, I met Special Envoy Elan Carr to discuss how we can work together more closely. Finally, I want to put on record my thanks to my noble friend for all his work on this important issue.

My Lords, frequent reference has been made to “ongoing” bilateral discussions, and we must heed that and take it at face value. However, the general election in Poland has returned to power someone whose campaign proved consistently anti-German, anti-Jewish and anti-LGBTQ. Will the Minister let us know how easy it is, with a Government such as the present one, to have the kinds of conversations that might have outcomes that would prevent us discussing the matter in the future, as we have in the past? While we are emerging from the European Union at this critical time, is there enough energy to focus on this question, when so many other things demand our attention?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, we do engage regularly—most recently, as we heard from my noble friend, engagement through our ambassador produced positive results. We of course look forward to working with the new Government and I assure the noble Lord that at my first meeting with the Foreign Minister we will discuss various issues, including that of restitution.

Justice dictates that huge efforts must be made to restore to families property stolen from those who died at the hands of the Nazis. All EU states signed the Terezin declaration. What arrangements are we making after the transition period to work with our EU neighbours to deliver on those commitments?

My Lords, we will continue to work with our EU friends on a number of important issues, as we will do on this and on wider issues of freedom of religion or belief.

The late Lord Janner, along with our embassy in Lithuania, carried out a huge project to mark every site of a mass atrocity across Lithuania. What has been done under Terezin to ensure that those plaques are still in place and are being properly maintained?

My Lords, I will write to the noble Lord on that important issue. However, I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that wherever such atrocities took place—I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland—we should always commemorate and remember, and commit ourselves to ensuring that this kind of genocide does not happen again.

What further practical help are HMG giving to those who need to delve into Polish archives—a very difficult issue—in their pursuit of justice? It is not only Polish Jews who suffered; many non-Jewish Poles had their properties nationalised by the Polish Government. In helping my noble friend Lord Pickles in his important work, will my noble friend the Minister institute an annual reporting system to encourage the Poles to do what is just and right?

My Lords, I note what my noble friend has said. He will know from our own conversations how committed I am personally to ensuring scrutiny. We continue to ensure that Poland stands up as a signatory of the Terezin declaration. We will work with the US. Noble Lords have mentioned JUST, and it is planned that the first JUST Act will be released at the end of July. We will look at its outcomes and work closely with our partners.

My Lords, as well as restitution, another very clear purpose of the declaration is that we should learn from these past events to build a more compassionate and understanding present and future through human rights. However, rising anti-Semitism, intolerance, racism and populism in countries that signed the declaration show that this aspect has clearly failed. Will the Government institute work to help us find out and understand why that is, so that we can also make this part of the declaration more effective?

My Lords, I am happy to give that commitment. As a Minister I am responsible for human rights and for standing up in strong support of organisations around the world that fight racism and the abhorrence of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Irrespective of party affiliations, we will continue to work together as one country to ensure that every kind of hate and abhorrent hate crime, be it religious or otherwise, is met with the full force of our unity of action and purpose. I stand ready to work with other noble Lords in the pursuit of this noble aim.