Protecting the innocent – from Bosnia to China

The US tries to curb Beijing’s campaign against a Muslim minority even as the world still comes to grips with the principle of protecting the innocent from mass atrocities.

Bosnians attend the funerals of nine massacre victims near Srebrenica, Bosnia, July 11, the 25th anniversary of the country's worst carnage during the 1992-95 war.

On Monday, the United States took action to protect a minority in China from mass detention and forced labor. It barred 11 Chinese companies from buying American technology without a special license, citing their complicity in China’s campaign against its Muslim minority. The action is commendable on its own. It aims to end what many regard as a slow genocide of 1 million or more members of a religious group. Yet on a grander scale, it helps revive a fading ideal in global affairs: the responsibility to prevent mass atrocities.

The U.S. action comes as many world leaders commemorated the 25th anniversary of the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust. In July 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica were slaughtered by Serbian forces over 11 days. The world’s reluctance to intervene, along with its indifference during Rwanda’s genocide a year earlier, led the United Nations to later endorse the idea of collective intervention in any country experiencing large-scale killing.

Western countries have struggled, however, in applying this principle of protecting innocent civilians from gross human rights violations. The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya to protect an entire city left that country in tatters. But the world largely stood by as Syria used chemical weapons on its own people. And it has done little to end abuses in Myanmar against a Muslim minority, the Rohingya.

Stopping China’s ruthless campaign against the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in the Xinjiang region may be one of the biggest challenges. Invasion is not an option. The U.S. is left with sanctions and highlighting China’s atrocities – such as forced abortions – in international forums.

Yet the legacy of the Srebrenica massacre hangs over the West’s response to China. The fact that such a mass killing took place in Europe 50 years after World War II – and despite attempts to curb ethnic and religious nationalism on the Continent – was a shock. With Bosnia still suffering political tensions between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, world leaders are frequently reminded of the work needed to protect minorities. “We cannot let up in working towards genuine reconciliation [in Bosnia],” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on the anniversary.

To the world’s credit, the two main leaders of the Srebrenica massacre have been convicted and sentenced in an international court. Bosnia’s politicians are nudged and cajoled by European and American diplomats.

The global embrace of the idea that innocent lives must be protected may have weakened. But as the Chinese government further tries to destroy the Uyghur people, the world – or at least the U.S. – has put a fresh spotlight on a humanitarian principle.

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