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11 July 2015

20 years after Srebrenica, the Rohingya are the Bosnians of today

After Srebrenica, the world said "never again". But yet another cleansing is happening in Myanmar, while the world watches. 

By Yasmin Qureshi

On July 11, 1995, Europe was revisited by the horrors it promised would “never again” occur on its soil. In the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, the very heart of Europe, eight thousand Bosnian Muslim boys and men were systematically slaughtered just five decades after the Holocaust.

This week, 20 years on, the world will commemorate that genocide. But even as we do so, ethnic cleansing will be taking place again. Again, it is directed against the Muslim population of a country that has lived there for generations. Again, it is the religious identity of the persecuted that justifies their persecution. And again, the world is doing little to address that persecution or the pervasive hate that gives rise to it.

It is Myanmar’s Rohingya, the “world’s most persecuted minority”, who today draw disturbing parallels to the plight of the Bosnian Muslims two decades earlier.

Like in Bosnia, realpolitik considerations of political and economic expediency have muted the responses of the international community to the Rohingya crisis.

After Myanmar’s recent liberalised economic reforms, it seems taking decisive action against a country with one of the world’s fastest growing economies does not fit the domestic agendas of many in the international community.

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Similarly, two decades earlier, concern for how the domestic political agendas of Nato nations might be adversely affected by taking action against Serb aggression also led to inertia, even as hundreds of thousands perished.

Today, when the situation of the Rohingya is, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “nothing less than genocide”, the international community must learn from the lessons of the recent past. It must recalibrate its priorities in favor of averting genocide, even if that means a slight compromise in a government’s ‘domestic political agenda’.

But Srebrenica raises another fundamental question, one that informs any long-term response to the problem of mass persecution. How do we address the roots of hate that the Rohingya crises’ and Srebrenica massacres’ of the world all depend upon?

What creates the deep divisiveness that sets communities against each other in the first place? And that fosters a world-view where the destruction of the ‘other’ becomes synonymous with one’s own survival?

Hate speech happens to be a common cause across all cases of large-scale persecution. Without widespread messages of hate that dehumanize the ‘other’ and seep into the collective consciousness of the masses, the normalization of mass persecution and (in extreme cases) the total elimination of an ‘outside group’ cannot take place.

Before Bosnians were herded into concentration camps, they were depicted as “Turks” – foreigners plotting to impose an expansionist Muslim state upon Serbs, despite their overwhelmingly secular make-up. In 2010, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia recognized the role of media propaganda in the Srebrenica genocide.

Today uncannily similar hate speech is employed against the Rohingya who are labelled “Bengalis” – foreigners attempting to force Muslim hegemony over Myanmar. Like the Bosnians before them, populist extremist characterizations of the Rohingya are dehumanizing, comparing them to mad dogs incapable of reasoning with.

Such perceptions are important because they create the mood music for controversial laws like Myanmar’s birth control legislation or the decision to withhold citizenship from the Rohingya.

But hate messages also afflict us closer to home. The precipitous rise in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crime in Europe over the past year, is partly fueled by social media narratives and populist right-wing rhetoric about a demographic takeover of Europe, one that supposedly poses an existential threat to our way of life and civilization. Indeed, such rhetoric was replete across Anders Breivik’s 1000-page manifesto as justification for his murderous rampage in Norway in 2012.

The world around us, too, is suffering from increased religious sectarian hatred, fueling violence against the Yazidis, minority Christians in Iraq and Syria and internecine Sunni/ Shia violence in the Middle East.

It is a global problem and warrants a global solution. The world must do more to form a coordinated response to powerful narratives of hate that influence so many across the globe, like they did in Bosnia and like they are doing now in Myanmar.

This is why the Istanbul Process is so important. Supported by the European Union, the United States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Process is designed to find a global solution to the problem of religious hate crimes and hate speech by implementing Human Rights Resolution 16/18.

This does not mean curtailing each nation’s freedom of speech laws so as to block hate speech, a point the most recent Istanbul Process meeting reiterated. Instead it means focusing on positive speech, tackling the online battleground where extremist propaganda abounds and framing powerful counter-narratives against the twisted logic and misinformation so often characterizing anti-religious rhetoric.

Realizing that so many major crimes against humanity stem from such hate, the Istanbul Process is a rare example of collaboration between three of the world’s major regional representatives on an issue that desperately needs it.

And while the international community must do much more, under the current dire circumstances, the Istanbul Process is not just helpful, but necessary.

But that does not mean it’s enough. With ethnic cleansing taking place before our eyes, grassroots social action must galvanize public opinion into pressuring the international community into firmer action to avert a potential repeat of Srebrenica.

In addition, we must also focus on the battle for hearts and minds, without which there can be no true victory over the bigotry, stereotypes and prejudice that precede violence. While the Rohingya have stepped into the shoes of the Bosnians of yesterday, combatting the drivers of hate will determine how many communities can be saved from stepping into the shoes of the Rohingya tomorrow.


Yasmin Qureshi is chair of the Chair of the APPG on Srebrenica, and member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee


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