Last week, a largely overlooked meeting took place in Geneva. Co-sponsored by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and the Society for Threatened Peoples, the event, per its title, focused on “Preventing and addressing violence and atrocity crimes targeted against minorities.” (The lack of coverage perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise – the meeting was termed a “side-event” to the United Nations' annual minorities forum.) Bringing together disparate, diffuse minority organizations, the meeting sought to “draw attention to violent crimes endured by different minority groups.”
If the point was to “draw attention” to the “persecution” under assorted autocratic regimes – Russia and China, especially – it doesn’t seem like the event as much of a success. (Again, it’s tough to really “draw attention” to an issue when it’s been relegated to a “side-event.”) But even though the event appears to have been mostly ignored, that doesn’t mean it went without any import. And considering the roster of speakers, the event actually deserved far more attention than it garnered – and may very well have set a precedent, or dialog, for future meetings.
The event managed to bring together high-ranking representatives from China’s Uyghur and Crimean Tatar communities, a pair of ethno-religious populations that, as of 2014, share far more in common than either would prefer. Secular Muslim populaces, grinding under truncated cultural and religious repression, persecuted under Russian and Han ethnic preference – sloughing under empire, as it were – and brought to Geneva to discuss their simultaneous experiences as battered, beleaguered minority.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, detailed China’s policies of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, and the further restrictions on those pushing access to free speech. Aishe Memetova, meanwhile, represented the Tatar population. (Why Refat Chubarov or Mustafa Dzhemilev, the nominal faces of Tatar repression and exile, were unavailable remains unclear.) Per the UNPO’s coverage,
Ms Memetova discussed the issues facing Crimean Tatars within the context of the current geopolitical struggle in the region. She outlined the parallels between the historic statehood of Crimea and outlying autonomous regions in China and the strategies used by both the Russian and Chinese governments in repressing minorities within their territories. Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia, religious extremism and state security has often been used as an excuse for widespread ethnic persecution of the Crimean Tatars.
Such framing – a nominally Islamic population, purportedly ripe for IS- and al Qaeda-sponsored radicalism – extends to Beijing’s narrative of Uyghur resistance, from Waziristan to Guantanamo. And Memetova's run-down shouldn’t come as a surprise. Russia, after all, has been as keen to whip up Islamic State threats to its regional well-being, despite all facts pointing otherwise, as they are to batter the Tatar population into submission. (Human Rights Watch recently detailed the Tatars’ ongoing plight, which I’ve covered here.)
So, yet another parallel between Uyghur and Tatar sufferings. And according to Memetova, the situation’s only growing bleaker:
The number of incidents of disappearances and public discrimination against the Crimean Tatars is increasing and the Russian state police are often totally non-compliant with requests for thorough investigations to be held, [Memetova said]. As a result, Ms Memetova believes that the actual number of disappearances is much higher than current estimates.
Again, it’s tough to deem the meeting last week a “success,” as the event went almost entirely without coverage. (Certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Tatars' struggles were ignored.) But bringing Tatar and Uyghur representatives together has to stand as some kind of silver lining. Just as autocracies can coordinate their efforts in repression, so, too, can repressed minorities swap tactics in solidarity. What fruits of the meeting come remains to be seen. But in the world of Eurasian repression, you have to grab the moments of hope where you can.