Analyzing this subject it is compelling to take into account lapse of time, lack of legislation at the time, the weakness of international law and the current improbability of punishment. It is necessary to recognizet the Genocide Convention of 1948, that is, when the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was formally adopted, and to take into account the legal axiom that law does not function retroactively, and perhaps even more so, that international law is mostly not implemented or enflorced. However, a discussion of genocides in the modern era that preceded the Convention of 1948 are not exclusively academic. Morality, although often insignificant in politics and relations between sovereigns, is not completely an irrelevant topic.
Obviously, the events of genocide prior to the Convention should include in the modern era the well-known Armenian Genocide from 1915, the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33, the Jewish Holocaust of 1939-45, as well as the Ukrainian Vistula Action of 1947. The last resulted in a lower number of deaths, but is subject to the definition of Genocide in the UN Convention as an attempt to destroy a nation or an ethnic group partly and culturally. Perhaps surprisingly, the previous three genocides do not have such a precise manifestation of intent as the Vistula Action genocide, where the Polish government decree stated “Once and for all to solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland.”
Regarding the Holodomor, the intention was manifested in Stalin’s letter to Kaganovich from August 1932, the decree closing the borders of the Ukrainian SSR and Kuban from January 1933, and regarding the Holocaust, the resolution of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, although the process of extermination of the Jews began long before that.
Considering genocide as a crime of the most heinous nature as per the International Criminal Court today, it is instructive to establish three factors, namely: the committed crime (corpus delicti), intent (mens rea) and identification of the criminal. The last one is probably the easiest to relate to the Holodomor and a contemporaneous state. The Armenian crime was committed by the Ottoman Empire, the Holocaust by Nazi Germany, the Vistula Action by Communist Poland. The Holodomor was perpetrated by Stalin and the USSR.
The contemporary Russian Federation succeeded to the assets and privileges of the USSR manifestly and aggressively. Within the United Nations, the Russian Federation directly took over all the seats of the USSR on its own initiative and, one might say, by aggression, even though this happened outside the framework presented by the UN Charter. The Kremlin thereby confirmed that it is the same state. Although this behavior of the Kremlin serves against the interests of the Kremlin in assuming the liabilities of its predecessor, it does not give the Kremlin the legitimacy of membership in the UN. That is, the fact remains that the Russian Federation never applied for membership in the UN or its Security Council. Its membership was never approved by the UN General Assembly, and therefore today the Russian Federation is de jure not a member of the UN, and more importantly is not a permanent member of its SC with the right of veto.
Punishment for the crime internationally prior to 1948 was manifested only in relation to Germans and Germany, and not in relation to genocide, but war crimes. Condemnation and criminal punishment of individuals took place through the Nuremberg Trials, and the German state, under pressure, accepted responsibility for financial compensation of the victims, which in some cases continues to this day. It is unlikely that the Russian Federation, Poland or Turkey will ever agree to punishment in any form, or compensation.
However, the moral consideration remains, that is, the recognition by states or international organizations of genocides perpetrated prior to the Convention. The UN has recognized the Holocaust and designated a special day for remembrance. The heirs of the criminal states will probably not agree to this. There remains the rest of the world and an organization such as the UN to recognise the Armenian Genocide fully, the Holodomor and the Vistula crime.
Israel stubbornly does not recognize any genocides other than its own. The motivation for this is immoral. Armenians will not recognize the Holodomor as genocide until Ukraine recognizes the Armenian genocide. Ukraine needs Turkey as an arms supplier in the war and not only now, but also as a future ally in NATO. Here, the position of one and the other state is politically motivated. Poland as a former imperialistic state sees only its side, that is, the Volyn killings of its colonizers, and has forgotten about its three occupations of Ukraine. These positions, albeit immoral, will probably persist.
However, it is important for Ukraine and Ukrainians that as many countries as possible be familiarized with the Holodomor and recognize it as genocide. This is a moral condemnation, not a punishment, but it probably opens a window to prevent future attempts at genocide against the Ukrainian people such as the current Russian aggression. The UN Convention of 1948 is called the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” In the real politics in which we find ourselves, this should be enough. Laws are meant not only to punish but to prevent.
Therefore, as a nation Ukrainians should honor the memory of all the victims, and for this to happen, scholars must further research the events of 1932-33. Determining the number of victims is very important for remembering and honoring, as well as for a better understanding of Ukraine’s present and the future. The number of victims is not necessary to establish genocide according to the definition of the Convention, but for a moral recognition and a historical perspective. Although morality seems not of great importance in international politics, it is an indispensible attribute of us as human beings.
November 1, 2023 Askold S. Lozynskyj