The Situation in Ukraine – House of Lord General Debate

Sep 21, 2023 | News

I spoke in the House of Lords debate about Ukraine and raised the issues of accountability for war crimes and the failure of international institutions to prevent Putin’s aggression and war crimes.

21st September 2023


Lord Alton of Liverpool


My Lords, two recurring themes in this hugely important debate have been accountability and the changing landscape of international institutions and their response to these events. Before I make my contribution on those themes, in parenthesis, I ask the Minister to touch on the munitions and armaments that this country has rightly gifted to Ukraine, as raised by the noble Lords, Lord Owen and Lord Alderdice. The replenishment of those gifts has not been referred to so far, although it was raised in the debate in your Lordships’ House on the report of the International Relations and Defence Committee. This is a hugely important question and I look forward to hearing from her about it.

Earlier, my noble and gallant friend said that there must be accountability for a gangster regime’s unrestrained savagery. As we debate today, functionaries and diplomats are meeting in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, but even the best of them must be shrugging their shoulders in despair at their own irrelevance, perhaps privately agreeing with the conclusion of a Wall Street Journal editorial on Tuesday that

“the truth about today’s world order lies in the rubble of Bakhmut”.

Undoubtedly, the failure of the UN to prevent the Kremlin’s visceral brutality and thwart its arms deals with countries such as Iran and North Korea—enabled by Russia’s veto in the Security Council with Chinese support—has left its credibility in tatters. Even its one significant achievement, brokering a deal to keep grain flowing from Ukraine, was jettisoned by Putin in July. Can the Minister, who referred to this in her opening remarks, enlarge on that and tell us what the current position is on those crucial supplies to countries where famine is no infrequent visitor?

Just as President Zelensky’s courage and refusal to buckle has forced the West to reassess its failures to see the danger lurking in its own backyard, so perhaps that remarkable man—who also addressed the General Assembly this week—might wake us and those acquiescent nations up to the dangers posed by an unravelling world order. In his remarks in New York, President Zelensky said that Russia has weaponised food, fossil fuels and nuclear energy and warned about “shady dealings” to try to concoct a deal legitimising Russia’s illegal seizure of the territories of a sovereign state.

He warned:

“Evil cannot be trusted—ask Prigozhin”.

But he also insisted:

“For the first time in modern history we have a real chance to end the aggression on the terms of the nation which was attacked”,

telling the UN’s smaller states:

“This is a real chance for every nation to ensure that aggression against your state, if it happens … will end not because your land will be divided and you will be forced to submit to military or political pressure, but because your territory and sovereignty will be fully restored”.

These are questions which go right to heart of the issues of the world order and the rule of law that we have been debating.

I have some specific questions for the Minister, of which I have given her notice. During his remarks this week, Mr Zelensky referred to the plight of the kidnapped tens of thousands of Ukrainian children, referred to by my noble and gallant friend. President Zelenksy said it must be stopped and asked:

“What will happen to them? … This is clearly a genocide”.

From the early months of the war, we have heard disturbing stories of Ukrainian children being abducted and taken to Russia and being subjected to accelerated illegal adoptions there. In August, at a UN Security Council session, Kateryna Rashevska, a legal expert at the Regional Center for Human Rights, reported that Russian Federation agents had taken at least 19,546 children to Russia from Ukraine since 18 February 2022. Among other violations, Russian Federation citizenship is imposed on them, and they are forbidden to speak and learn the Ukrainian language or preserve their Ukrainian identity.

This is not the first time Russia has targeted children. Similar practices were deployed in 2014 with the so-called “Train of Hope”. The international community failed to address those crimes in 2014, and President Zelensky is right to demand that we do not do the same again. On 17 March, a pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court issued warrants of arrest for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova

“for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”.

“War crimes”—not a rhetorical device but an indictment. The International Criminal Court goes further, saying:

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova bear individual criminal responsibility for these crimes”.

This week Mr. Zelensky said:

“Never before the mass kidnapping and deportation would become a part of the government policy. Not until now. We know the names of tens of thousands of children and have evidence on hundreds of thousands of others kidnapped by Russia in the occupied territories of Ukraine and later deported. … We are trying to get children back home but time goes by. What will happen to them? Those children in Russia are taught to hate Ukraine, and all ties with their families are broken … This is clearly a genocide. When hatred is weaponized against one nation, it never stops there”.

What can the Minister tell us about how this case can be progressed, and what more can be done to assist Ukraine’s children, especially those from orphanages and children who have who have been abducted to Russia to be subjected to illegal adoptions there? What practical assistance is being offered to Ukraine in this respect? Is there a clear strategy about how best to assist Ukraine in ensuring that Ukrainian children are reunited with their families and carers?

When the Minister replies, I hope she will also say a word or two about an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. The issue is sexual violence in Ukraine, where the evidence of rape and sexual violence in Putin’s war is growing as every day passes. Has the Minister seen the report published by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which provides graphic and harrowing details which I will not repeat to the House? If the Minister has seen the report, how are we responding?

How will those responsible be brought to justice? What practical assistance is the Government offering to victims and survivors of CRSV in Ukraine? How much of our own budget is assigned for this purpose and what is the progress in delivering this assistance? In this same search for accountability, can the Minister also say what progress has been made in establishing an ad hoc tribunal for the crime of aggression, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, especially now that a mechanism to collect the evidence of the crime of aggression is up and running in the Hague? How is the UK supporting the work of the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine, but also the work of Eurojust, now that the UK is out of the EU and Eurojust?

The noble Lord, Lord Harrington, referred to Ukrainian refugees. I pay tribute to the Government for the way in which they have helped to organise the great response that the noble Lord, Lord Owen, also touched on. That took the work of the then Minister dealing with this, the noble Lord, Lord Harrington, and others who have followed, and there are around 163,000 people who have been helped. What have we been doing to collect and preserve evidence of Putin’s crimes from refugees who have arrived in the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme? It is an issue I have raised previously on several occasions in the House and in correspondence with Ministers. Testimonies of war crimes must be meticulously collected and preserved for the day the perpetrators face their Nuremberg moment. Men have allegedly been found shot dead with their hands bound. Mass graves are said to contain the bodies of dozens of civilians. Such butchery must carry consequences. Olaf Scholz was right to describe it as “terrible and horrifying”. Emmanuel Macron described the evidence from Bucha as “unbearable” and said that the Russian authorities will have to answer for these crimes.

Even in advance of that Nuremberg moment, what are we doing now to amend our law, especially the International Criminal Court Act, to ensure that those responsible for international crimes and who are not UK citizens or residents can be prosecuted by British courts—as has happened in Germany and was underlined by Amal Clooney’s recent success on Yazidi genocide when she took a case to the German courts? How are we intending to work with the Register of Damage for Ukraine, which was established in May at the Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik? This is an issue I raised during the course of the economic crime Bill. I thank the Government for having accepted the all-party amendment which I moved at that time. The noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, helpfully responded to the amendment with a promise of secondary legislation this autumn to address the issue of sanctions evasion, including confiscating proceeds of sanctions evasion and repurposing them in Ukraine’s reconstruction. What progress has been made on this and how and when will the confiscated proceeds be used to pay for the damage claimed through the register?

Finally, on Tuesday, President Biden told the General Assembly that the world needs to

“stand up to naked aggression”

and that no country is safe if world leaders allow any country to be “carved up”. He rightly asserted that Russia alone bears responsibility for this terrible war, in which an estimated 500,000 troops have been killed or wounded. US and European support for Ukraine has been crucial for its survival, but it must be intensified if Ukraine is to prevail. As the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said, in the US, Republicans especially must withstand the Trumpian message of abandonment. In the US, there needs to be a strong, bipartisan message that, if you want to stop China from invading Taiwan, the best message to send Xi Jinping is to see Putin defeated.

In Europe, Ukraine’s fight is undoubtedly our fight as well. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, said that appeasement never pays. Winston Churchill once said, “If you feed the crocodiles, one day the crocodiles will come and feed on you”.

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