The World is Failing Xinjiang Just As It Failed Srebrenica | Opinion

The past week marked the 25thr anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, where more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were slaughtered as United Nations soldiers stood by. It took years for the U.N., by then under Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, to accept their inexcusable failure—but after a quarter of a century, it seems we have learned little from this unspeakable atrocity.

Today, another genocide of a Muslim population is underway while the political process once again paralyses the world into inaction. China's Xinjiang boasts the largest internment camps of an ethnic or religious minority since the Holocaust.

Defining a country or territory along ethnic or religious lines almost invariably leads to harm to minorities. This was the case in Bosnia, and this is the case in China. A rigid definition of Chinese identity based on the Han ethnicity and Confucian, rather than Abrahamic religious, values has allowed modern-day concentration camps to proliferate there. Over a million Muslim Uighurs are currently held in camps, as well as women being subjected to compulsory sterilization or being forced to live with a Han Chinese man, in what has been widely reported as a mass-rape program.

Having worked with both Bosnian and Uighur survivors, the parallels are clear, right down to the language used. Muslim Bosniaks were "otherised" by Serb agressors who called them "Turks." Uighurs have been viewed as needing to be assimilated into Chinese culture in 're-education camps' due to their Turkic ethnicity. Just as the media performed a pivotal role in informing the world about the crimes being committed in Bosnia, for example when a news crew secured footage of the malnourished Fikret Alic across a razor wire fence, the crimes currently being committed in Xinjiang—and international brands' complicity in them—is there for all to witness. But unlike in Srebrenica, nothing seems to penetrate the wilful blindness of governments too dependent on the current balance of world economic power to risk upsetting China—even over a blatant, textbook, barely concealed case of genocide.

I have seen firsthand through my work with international humanitarian charity Penny Appeal the trauma Uighur refugees suffer, and the difficulty in rebuilding their lives after surviving such inhumane conditions. This is to say nothing of those who are not fortunate enough to escape.

It can happen again—also in Europe

When visiting Bosnia and meeting with leaders and survivors there, I was struck by how abandoned they felt by their fellow Europeans and indeed the world. This same sense of alienation, in the place you call home, is mirrored by the experiences of minority communities across the globe (including in the UK) - and this time, we must listen and we must act.

According to the "Clinton tapes," key European allies felt that the Muslim Bosnians' presence and statehood in Europe was "unnatural," with President Mitterand of France saying that "Bosnia did not belong," and British officials going further, speaking of a "realistic restoration of Christian Europe."

Despite the continent's almost millennium and a half of history with Islam, many still define Europe as exclusively Christian—ironic, given that Christianity itself began in the Middle East.

Muslim minorities in Europe and North America, including in the U.K., frequently face the same prejudice and discrimination (albeit the thin edge of the wedge) that has has been brought to their horrifying, but entirely consistent, ultimate expression in Srebenica and Xinjiang. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased year-on-year in many Western nations, and has even been part of the far-right's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic anxiety and fear of the post-COVID economic and societal climate is likely to make the scapegoating and subsequent attacks on minorities worse everywhere.

Many may feel these fears are exaggerated—but speak to the families of those who lost their loved ones in Bosnia. They will tell you how quickly racism turned neighbor against neighbor in a country that hosted the Winter Olympics just a few years prior: "You think it will never happen in your country" the voice of one of The Mothers of Srebencia rings in my head, "just like we thought it would never happen in ours."

Political and economic considerations will be even more of an issue as we likely enter a global recession that may be unlike anything we have seen before. But humanitarianism is worth paying a price for. And as well as putting pressure on others to improve humanitarian situations overseas, we must ensure that our own societies reflect the values we wish to export.

We can respect China's right to security, and the difference in social policies between the People's Republic and our own homelands, whilst insisting on humane treatment for all. This should be a cornerstone of global growth and holding world leadership to account, not a casualty of it.

It is easy to say "never again." It is harder to build societies where hatred cannot take hold, and where taking a stand to protect all minorities is seen as the right thing to do—even when it comes at the political and economic cost of upsetting the world's second-largest economy.

Those who do not learn from history, as the saying goes, are bound to repeat it. 25 years since the genocide in Srenbenica we are failing to protect those whose are headed for the same fate. My only hope is that 25 years from now we are not reflecting on another anniversary of the Uighur Genocide, but instead celebrating how the world put an end to genocide once and for all.

Harris Iqbal is CEO of international humanitarian charity Penny Appeal.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.