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The case for seizing Russian Assets to rebuild Ukraine | Speech to the House of Commons

No-one forgets their first visit to Kyev - or the posters everywhere with a simple message: 'Be brave like Ukraine'. Ministers should heed that advice - and take three simple steps to begin confiscating Russian assets to finance the $400 billion bill for rebuilding Ukraine. My speech to the House of Commons in June 2023, sets out the pathway.

Mr Speaker

I would like to start with a word of praise for what was a brilliant opening speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), the shadow Foreign Secretary. He gave the House not just a cry of anger or a plea for solidarity, but a demand for justice. Justice is exactly what the people of Ukraine need and they need it now.

There are three questions at the core of this debate, which were eloquently set out by the shadow Foreign Secretary: a practical question about who pays for violence; a moral question of who is punished; and a political question of how we in this country stay on track and keep pace with our allies.

We should start with the question of who pays, because that was where we ended last week at the Ukraine reconstruction conference. As we heard, the bill for reconstruction is now enormous: $400 billion and counting, a one-third hit to Ukraine GDP, a fiscal deficit that is through the floor and interest rates that are through the roof. Where on earth will that money come from? We give thanks to the Bretton Woods institutions, which, best case, have mobilised something like $55 billion between them. Notwithstanding the money that was raised, promised, committed and vowed at the reconstruction conference last week, the gap is still enormous. That gap takes us to the question of justice and the requirement on Russia to make good the gap.

Ultimately, we on this continent of Europe are not simply a rules-based order; we are a rights-based order. In the ashes of world war two, we stood together with 10 of our great allies and, on 5 May 1949, founded the Council of Europe, which Churchill declared would hold up

“moral concepts…able to win the respect and recognition of mankind”,

A council united behind what Churchill called the charter of human rights

“guarded by freedom and sustained by law.”

That is the charter Russia signed in May 1998 and that is the charter it has breached ever since.

If we believe in rules, we believe in punishment for those who break the rules. If we believe the aggressor must pay, then we must punish the aggressor. If there is no sanction, sentence, penalty or punishment for those who break the rules, we can expect those rules to be broken time and time and time again.

Is that not the lesson that we should learn from even a casual glance at Russia’s history: the throttling of Berlin in 1948, the invasion of Hungary, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of Afghanistan, of Georgia, of Moldova, of Ukraine? When are we ever going to learn the necessity of re-containing Russia? We cannot change the geography of Russia, but we can and we must end Russia’s ceaseless choreography of war.

This is no time for the sentence to be deferred. Why should the people of Ukraine wait? Why should they suffer in the sight of their enemies luxuriating in riches while their soldiers die and their children shelter in basements? Why should they watch oligarchs who stole from the people of Russia live high on the hog in their well-tended mansions here in London and elsewhere. Why should the gold of the Russian central bank, all £170 billion of it, sit gathering dust in a vault while the Ukrainian people suffer? That is not justice. Justice deferred is justice denied. Every day that we fail to take action is a day that we fail Ukraine, a day that we fail justice, a day when we neglect our duties to stand up against the brutal code of tyrants who think that might makes right and the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. That is why we have to ensure that Russia picks up the bill for Ukraine’s reconstruction today.

That is the case for justice. As for the political case, it is pretty straightforward. Our allies are moving forward in not just freezing but seizing assets; is it not time we moved with them? The United States Senate is moving forward; is it not time we moved with it? The Canadian Government are moving forward; is it not time we moved with them? The President of the European Commission says that the frozen assets of the Russian central bank will be used to pay for reconstruction; is it not time we moved with the EU? Why should we fall behind? Our allies are sending a message to us here in the House—pick up the pace!—and that is the message that we send to the Minister.

It is time for us to crack on. First, as the shadow Foreign Secretary says, we need a Bill to be brought to the Dispatch Box within 90 days. Let us make sure that it amends the State Immunity Act 1978, which gives central banks immunity from jurisdiction and from enforcement. Let us empower Ministers with the authority to make seizure and forfeiture orders. Let us change the relevant terms of international law to safeguard that Bill. Let us move a motion for debate at the UN General Assembly to make it very clear that the majority of states now see the phrase “entitled to immunity” in a different light in different circumstances, now that war has been committed on this scale. To protect ourselves from any attempts to misuse the European convention on human rights, let us immediately begin prosecuting Russia for the crime of aggression, so that it cannot pretend that it is in any way some kind of victim in this illegal invasion.

Let me end by saying this. No one in the House forgets their first visit to Kyiv, that glorious city of Europe’s eastern border. No one forgets the message that they see emblazoned everywhere, on the posters in the squares, on the trains and in the cafés: “Be brave like Ukraine.” That is the message that the House sends to the Ministers on the Treasury Bench today: “Be brave like Ukraine. Strike a blow for freedom, and send the message from this mother of Parliaments that democracy on this continent will never be defeated.”


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