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December 21, 2000

Toronto Marks Famine with Lecture on International Commission

The full significance of an event or act is not always appreciated until later. Such may be the case with the International Commission of Jurists Inquiry into the Famine in Ukraine, according to Ian Hunter, a renowned lawyer, professor and author, who delivered the annual famine lecture in Toronto November 30. The event was organized as part of a seminar series of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and co-sponsored by the Toronto Branch of the Ukrainian Congress and the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Toronto. The event was held at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.

Mr. Hunter served as General Counsel to the International Commission, formed at the initiative of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians. He described the precedent-setting work of the Commission as "an audacious and ambitious attempt to set the historical record straight by use of the modern trial process" and mused about why its report, released in May 1990, was not more widely circulated.

In outlining the workings and findings of the seven-member Commission, Mr. Hunter said that the Commission’s mandate was to scrutinize the evidence objectively and dispassionately to arrive at the truth. In the process of fact-finding, it examined the testimony of historians, demographers and actual survivors as well as books, monographs, documents from embassies, newspaper accounts, and eyewitness accounts of witnesses. Most harrowing, he said, were accounts of the brutal requisitioning of all foodstuffs and what would happen when hidden stores were found.

Mr. Hunter distinguished the following areas in which the Commission’s findings were unanimous: "Overwhelming evidence" exists that the famine occurred in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, peaking in the spring of 1933; the famine was manmade and not the result of climactic conditions or other natural disasters. The three main causes were compulsory grain requisitions, collectivization of agriculture and dekulakization. Soviet authorities not only refrained from sending aid, but also took a number of steps that exacerbated the famine through decrees and enforcement of an internal passport system that condemned people in the areas of starvation. The Commission concluded that at minimum, 4.5 million people had died in Ukraine. Although we now know that the figure may be closer to 10 million, Mr. Hunter asserted that it was correct of the Commission to estimate conservatively in order to safeguard its reputation as independent and objective at a time when the Soviet Union steadfastly denied that a famine had even occurred.

While a majority of the jurists found that "the Soviet authorities had decreed and promulgated measures that would foreseeably bring about famine and hindered relief efforts," three members found that it was not possible to prove the legal crime of genocide and thus to apply the term genocide as defined by the United Nations Convention.

Mr. Hunter also spoke about the testimony before the commission of Malcom Muggeridge, a friend of his whom he called a decent, honest and courageous man and perhaps the greatest journalist of the century. Because Mr. Muggeridge was old and quite ill at the time of the inquiry, the Commission traveled to his home in Sussex, England to take his testimony. Writing for the Manchester Guardian, the 30 year-old Muggeridge had traveled through Ukraine in the spring of 1933 (he had his translator buy the railway pass since he would not have been allowed to purchase one). What he saw horrified him. Muggeridge witnessed people dying of starvation, sometimes in site of granaries guarded by soldiers. His articles were smuggled out via British diplomatic pouch.

Mr. Hunter described the taking of Mr. Muggeridge’s testimony as a poignant vindication of a man who had been vilified for his honesty, most notably by Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter during the famine, who called Muggeridge a liar (although privately Duranty said that millions had died), and by George Bernard Shaw, who called Muggeridge "a hysterical liar."

During the question and answer period, members of the audience suggested reasons that the report did not receive more attention. It was suggested lack of funds resulted in less than adequate print quality and distribution efforts. Mr. Hunter pointed out that by the time of the report’s release in 1990, to some extent, events had overtaken the Commission’s Inquiry, with Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledging the famine. It is likely he did so, according to Mr. Hunter, because he knew the Commission was about to rule.

Mr. Hunter concluded by calling the International Commission of Jurists Inquiry in to the Famine in Ukraine a "ground-breaking initiative" and a "noble undertaking" that could serve as a model for future efforts to address allegations of atrocities.

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