On 23 November 2023, the House of Lords is due to debate a motion tabled by Lord Risby (Conservative), that ‘this House takes note of the case for recognising the Ukrainian Holodomor as a genocide’.

1. What was the Ukrainian Holodomor?

The Holodomor—directly translated from Ukrainian as ‘death by hunger’—refers to a famine that took place in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933.[1] This followed the implementation of agricultural collectivisation policies introduced under Joseph Stalin’s Soviet regime.[2] These policies required Ukrainians to contribute high quotas of grain to the Soviet state.[3] Those unable to meet such quotas had their homes searched and food seized. Ukrainians were reported to have been forbidden from leaving the country during this time, despite scarce food resources. Whilst Russia has accepted the Holodomor as a tragedy, it has disputed that the Soviet regime caused the famine intentionally.[4]

No official death toll for the Holodomor exists. Some academics, including Oleh Wolowyna, director of the Center for Demographic and Socio-economic Research of Ukrainians in the US, have estimated that around 4mn deaths occurred.[5] Others have estimated the death toll to be much higher.[6] However, according to Olga Andriewsky, associate professor at Trent University in Canada, demographers and historians have agreed that it would not be possible to establish a precise figure due to problems with Soviet census materials at that time.[7] Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, has also alluded to the absence of reliable data on population losses during this time.[8]

Some governments and parliaments including the Canadian government, Australian parliament and the United States Congress have since labelled the Holodomor as a genocide by Stalin’s Soviet regime. Further details about some of those countries to have recognised the event as a genocide is provided in section 4.

2. What is genocide?

Genocide is an international criminal offence. It refers to any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy 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

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the genocide convention) provided this definition. The crime can be committed in both a time of peace and a time of war.

Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin is reported to have been the first person to coin the term ‘genocide’ in an attempt to provide a legal concept for the Nazi Holocaust.[9]

3. How is genocide determined?

International and domestic courts are responsible for convicting people or states of genocide.

The genocide convention was the first piece of international law to codify the crime of genocide.[10] The UK and other signatory states to the convention are required to take measures to prevent and punish genocide, including by introducing relevant domestic legislation and convicting perpetrators.

Genocide is also defined as a crime in various other international agreements, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome statute). The Rome statute led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which has the power to hand down convictions for genocide offences committed from 1 July 2002 onwards. The UK ratified the Rome Statute in 2001.[11]

The UK also has its own genocide offence in domestic legislation. The International Criminal Court Act 2001 incorporated the UK’s obligations under the Rome statute into domestic law. This provided UK courts with powers to convict UK nationals and residents with genocide. In addition to UK courts, the ICC also has the power to prosecute UK nationals or residents accused of genocide if domestic courts are unable or unwilling to do so.[12]

The United Nations requires its officials to use the term ‘genocide’ only when referring to events that have been determined by a court to constitute genocide.[13] Referring to something as genocide without a court determination can be politically controversial, it warns. The UN states that where such a determination has not been made by a court, use of this term could be “vigorously contested” by affected communities and could result in “political tensions”.

To date, only a limited number of events have been determined as genocide by a court. This does not include the Holodomor. Despite this, various national legislatures have chosen to recognise the Holodomor as genocide in solidarity with Ukraine.

4. Which legislatures recognise the Holodomor as genocide?

Various governments and parliaments across the world have recognised the Holodomor as genocide. This includes the Canadian government, which supported the passage of a private member’s bill in 2008 that officially recognised the Holodomor as an act of genocide and established a memorial day to commemorate it.[14] In November 2022, the German federal parliament passed a resolution put forward by the parties of the coalition government that declared the Holodomor a genocide.[15] Other parliaments that have passed similar resolutions include Australia, Belgium, France and the US.[16]

Most recently, in December 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that recognised the Holodomor as a genocide, having previously recognised the event as a crime against humanity.[17]

5. What is the UK government’s stance?

The government’s long-standing policy is that a competent court should make the decision on whether a genocide has been committed, not the government. A ‘competent court’ refers to a court that has the power to hear such matters. The government deems this to include international courts such as the ICC, as well as national criminal courts that meet international standards.[18]

The government has acknowledged five instances of genocide previously, all following determinations by competent courts.[19] These instances are the genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica and Cambodia, in addition to the Holocaust and the genocide against the Yazidi people.

The government restated its position on genocide determination during a debate in May 2023 in the House of Commons on the Holodomor.[20] Leo Docherty, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said the government’s policy would ensure genocide determinations remain “above politics, above lobbying and above individual, political or national interests”. The minister argued that its approach would give any UK government references to genocide “authority” and would be “harder to dismiss by those responsible for genocide acts”. However, the minister emphasised that the policy did not detract from the government’s recognition of the atrocities that took place during the Holodomor.

Some parliamentarians have disagreed with the government’s policy. During the same debate in the House of Commons, MPs agreed to a motion that the House of Commons “believes that the Holodomor was a genocide against the Ukrainian people”.[21]

Most recently, Patricia Gibson (SNP MP for North Ayrshire and Arran) tabled an early day motion in July 2023 that the House of Commons ‘recognises the Holodomor of 1932–33 in Ukraine as a genocide of the Ukrainian people’.[22] The motion was signed by 14 MPs from various parties before it fell when the 2022–23 parliamentary session ended.

6. Read more

Cover image by TheDigitalWay on Pixabay.


  1. Cato Institute, ‘The Holodomor, 90 years later’, 1 December 2022. Return to text
  2. Internet Encyclopaedia of Ukraine, ‘Famine-genocide of 1932–3’, accessed 15 November 2023. Return to text
  3. Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, ‘Holodomor basic facts’, accessed 14 November 2023. Return to text
  4. BBC News, ‘Holodomor: Memories of Ukraine’s silent massacre’, 23 November 2013. Return to text
  5. Serhii Plokhy, ‘The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present’, 2021 p 108. Return to text
  6. Euromaidan Press, ‘So how many Ukrainians died in the Holodomor?’, 27 November 2016. Return to text
  7. Olga Andriewsky, ‘Towards a decentred history: The study of the Holodomor and Ukrainian historiography’, Journal of Ukrainian Studies, 2015, vol 2, issue 1, p 28. Return to text
  8. Serhii Plokhy, ‘The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present’, 2021 p 106. Return to text
  9. Raphael Lemkin, ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress’, 1944. Return to text
  10. United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, ‘Ratification of the genocide convention’, accessed 10 November 2023. Return to text
  11. International Criminal Court, ‘United Kingdom: Assembly of state parties to the Rome statute’, accessed 10 November 2023. Return to text
  12. International Criminal Court, ‘How the court works’, accessed 13 November 2023. Return to text
  13. United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, ‘When to refer to a situation as “genocide”’, accessed 13 November 2023. Return to text
  14. Government of Canada, ‘Government of Canada applauds passage of bill c-459’, 2 June 2008. Return to text
  15. Gabriel Rinaldi, ‘Germany says Stalin’s Holodomor famine was a genocide’, Politico, 30 November 2022. Return to text
  16. National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide, ‘Worldwide recognition of the Holodomor as genocide’, accessed 13 November 2023. Return to text
  17. European Parliament, ‘Holodomor: Parliament recognises Soviet starvation of Ukrainians as genocide’, 15 December 2022. Return to text
  18. HL Hansard, 27 May 2021, col 178GC. Return to text
  19. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘UK acknowledges acts of genocide committed by Daesh against Yazidis’, 1 August 2023. Return to text
  20. HC Hansard, 25 May 2023, cols 517–18. Return to text
  21. HC Hansard, 25 May 2023, col 520. Return to text
  22. House of Commons, ‘Early day motion: Holodomor in Ukraine, 1932–1933’,11 July 2023, EDM 1452. Return to text