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11 July 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:46pm

Twenty-four years after the Srebrenica massacre, our leaders haven’t learned its lessons

Srebrenica, like the Holocaust, did not begin at the point of violence, but in the preceding decade where political leaderships and the media fanned the flames of populism.

By Kate Ferguson

Today is Srebrenica Memorial Day. It marks 24 years since over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered as part of a deliberate, systematic strategy to destroy or forcibly remove Muslim communities from parts of Bosnia.

Holocaust Memorial Day in January; Kwibuka on 7 April, which marks the anniversary of the start of the 1994 genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi; and 11 July should be a part of our shared culture and shared history. They provide an opportunity to honour those who have died and show solidarity with survivors.

But we must also learn from these and other past horrors. Otherwise, what do the pledges we make really mean?

The massacre in Srebrenica 24 years ago was first and foremost a crime against Bosnia’s Muslim community; it was also a crime against refugees. And it is refugees, migrants and minorities who are today paying a high price for Europe’s moral drift – so alarming that in May, the UN secretary general’s special adviser on the prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned that “the signs of the ‘30s are resurfacing” in Europe.

People in positions of power who, year on year, repeat the phrase “Never Again”, paying lip service to those who suffered from the failures of their predecessors, risk making the same mistakes. They are guilty of whitewashing the brutalities of today.

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How many MPs who have signed the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Book of Commitment, or who will today tweet their remembrance of Europe’s more recent genocide, also voted against the efforts of former Kindertransport refugee, Lord Alf Dubs, to insist that Britain offer sanctuary to 3,000 unaccompanied children fleeing mass atrocities?  

Sir Eric Pickles, the government’s envoy for post-holocaust issues, voted against the Dubs Amendment in 2016. So, too, did the Prime Minister, and the majority of the Commons. The UK still hasn’t fulfilled its paltry commitment to taking 480 of these children – a commitment only won after a parliamentary showdown and committed campaigning by charities.

Identity-based violence is never an isolated or self-contained problem but is inherently connected to the actions and attitudes of a state and its society.

The genocide in Srebrenica, like the Holocaust, did not begin at the point of violence, but in the preceding decade where political leaderships and the media fanned the flames of populism, deliberately invoking and exploiting divisions within society, and sowing seeds of distrust with propaganda and misinformation.  

The cynical manipulation in British politics of grievances against external foes and existential fears, whether of the European Union, migrants, Muslims, Jews, intellectuals, or “the elite” shows that many of our leaders haven’t learned these lessons.

Our own identity-based crisis has crept up on us, concealed by our own prejudices and the rejection of lessons that Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Holocaust contain. Protection Approaches, the charity I co-founded has found that more than 31 per cent of the British population believe Muslims are a threat to Britain. That’s 16.5 million people over the age of 16.

Last July, Tell MAMA reported that it had recorded its highest number of anti-Muslim hate incident reports since its launch in 2012. The government’s hate crime figures for 2017-18 found that hate crime overall has doubled since 2012. Roma people – targeted for destruction by the Nazis and today considered a threat to Britain by more than 40 per cent of those we surveyed – remain Europe’s most excluded population. The abuse of women in public life is now pervasive. Britain’s two largest parties seem unable or unwilling to respond to anxieties of rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

While the victims of identity-based violence may often look different, when discrimination, marginalisation, and violence against one group rise, many other groups also become more vulnerable. Racism breeds racism. Intolerance legitimises intolerance. 

The UK and Europe are facing a prevention crisis and the need for more inclusive, intersectional coming together of all who stand against identity-based violence is urgent. Hate is not innate; it is taught, disseminated, and learned. We can, we must, do better.

The responsibility to protect people from identity-based violence must be a shared one, stretching from local communities to global leaderships. It must begin with commitments close to home to prevent hate crime and invest in community building on the streets of London, Birmingham and Glasgow – as well as standing unequivocally against atrocities in Syria, Venezuela, Myanmar, and Cameroon.

Dr Kate Ferguson is co-executive director of Protection Approaches.

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