The distinction between genocide and ethnic cleansing is a “grey area” that befuddles scholars, policy makers, and students alike. The concepts of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” can be illustrated through examples. An instance of genocide would be the Holocaust, the systematic obliteration of the Jewish population during the Second World War in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. A more recent occurrence would be the mass murder of 800, 000 Tutsi people in Rwanda by Hutus in 1994. Another example would be the Rohingya Muslims’ persecution in Myanmar in late 2016, when the country’s armed forces and police carried out the killing of Rohingya people in Rakhine State in the country’s northwestern regions. On the other hand, ethnic cleansing, while it also involves the intention to exterminate a population, it is more limited to forced deportation or population transfer. A case of this is the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. In this instance, terrorists forced the migration of 50,000 Hindus from the state of Jammu and Kashmir through the use of fear, rape, assault, and the destruction of property.
This essay will provide a theoretical explanation of the differences between genocide and ethnic cleansing. Firstly, it will explain the term “genocide” as it is defined by the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Secondly, it will outline the origins and definition of the term “ethnic cleansing” according to the United Nations Commission’s Report on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Finally, the two will be discussed in relation to one another, and ultimately differentiated to shed some light on these two ambiguous terms.
It has been outlined in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, that genocide requires the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. The Convention explicitly outlines the very acts that are considered under the definition of genocide:
(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Each component of this article involves lethal force. Furthermore, the Genocide Convention not only defines genocide, it prohibits it. Moreover, the Convention obligates any country to prevent genocide and punish those who have committed acts of genocide. While the Convention stipulates a country’s responsibility to more than merely refrain from genocidal acts, it also requires prevention and punishment, which gives it universal jurisdiction and scope. This highlights the international concern for genocide. It becomes difficult to prove cases of genocide, however, since the following two components are broad in nature, and thus, make “intent” difficult to interpret and prove: (1) The intent to destroy a particular group, and (2) The commission of specific acts in support of the intent.
The basic foundations of ethnic cleansing are widely understood; however, ethnic cleansing in contradiction or distinguished from genocide has never been codified in international law. Instead, ethnic cleansing is understood as a form of previously-defined crimes. For example, the commission of experts in the ICTY have identified practices employed in ethnic cleansing as “crimes against humanity” that “can be assimilated to specific war crimes” and added, “that such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention”. This quote illustrates the close relationship that the two concepts share, as ethnic cleansing is used interchangeably with genocide or understood as a result of genocide. With respect to previously-defined crimes, the warfare of the former Yugoslavia brought a detailed inspection of the term ethnic cleansing; however, failed to anchor the term within international law (Lieberman 2010). The effect of this incoherence within legal arguments can be seen in the work of the ICTY, but more specifically, in the effects of legal proceedings. The ICTY is the legal body responsible for punishing crimes associated with ethnic cleansing, and its proceedings have most often mentioned ethnic cleansing with the purpose of providing background to a case or evidence of another related crime. Also, within court proceedings, ethnic cleansing is often seen as a term within quotation marks. This, therefore, facilitates the confusion, and the continuation of a gray-area for scholars, policy makers and learners who use the term. In fact, one attorney, in defending the ICTY, sought to use the absence of an international legal definition as grounds to challenge the use of the term, stating that “It does not exist in [the] Genocide Convention or in the international customary law” (United Nations, Case number IT‐97–24‐PT).
Nevertheless, Benjamin Lieberman (2010) explains that in the early 1990s, ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the academic circle as a new term closely linked with genocide. Lieberman notes:
Language referring to the idea of clearing away groups had been used in previous conflicts, but the particular term ethnic cleansing only gained widespread attention during the wars for the former Yugoslavia. Though now widely condemned, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ may actually have been coined by supporters of violent attacks designed to drive Bosnian Muslims out of mixed communities in the spring of 1992 (2010: 2).
Since its origin, the use of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ triggered controversy because it could function as a synonym, that is, a more favorable term to cover up macro acts of violence or make the phenomenon sound less harmful. Nonetheless, despite its origin and potential for the misconception, the term ethnic cleansing quickly gained common recognition as a major form of violence directed toward groups of people. It is a methodical attempt by one political, social, or religious group to remove an ethnic or religious group from a specific area through coercive means, where killing may be involved. It includes both forced migration and the threat of brutal killings to terrorize a minority population and force them to leave a specific territory. In addition, the means utilized to achieve ethnic cleansing may include torture, arbitrary arrest, execution, assault, rape, forcible eviction, loot and arson, destruction of property and so on.
Difference between Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
To simplify, the term genocide commonly refers to mass murder that is prohibited and punishable under the jurisdiction of the Convention. Genocide and ethnic cleansing are very similar with respect to their intent or purpose; that is, a political or religious group intends to exterminate another political or religious group from the midst of their presence. However, the difference is found within the means by which each concept achieves their intentions. Genocide adopts a much more brutal approach that utilizes mass murders and brutal killings, while ethnic cleansing adopts a more limited approach that utilizes forced deportation or population transfer. In other words, ethnic cleansing chooses to terrify a particular ethnic group, forcing them to leave a particular area in order to create a more homogenous population (Lieberman 2010). For example, although historians have used the word ethnic cleansing to explain the systematic and brutal killings of Jews during the Holocaust of the Second World War, the very fact that it involved mass murders of some six million Jews indicates that it was more of a genocide than ethnic cleansing. To distinguish, some 50,000 Hindus from the state of Jammu and Kashmir were displaced through acts of bodily harm and theft or the imposition of fear therefrom; thereby illustrating the acts of ethnic cleansing.
Debates over the classification of ethnic cleansing often focus on the intent of the perpetrator. Refugee movements, for example, confirms the characteristic of ethnic cleansing actions, but to apply the term ethnic cleansing, one must also entail a judgment or interpretation of the organization’s intent and the planning of their encouraged eviction. For example, the removal of civilians during wartime could be considered a war crime, however; the distinction of ethnic cleansing occurs when refugees flee a war zone as the result of the fear of uncertainty or the risk of grave harm. Genocide, on the other hand, would not involve such large emigration of refugees due to the mere extent of murder that would be involved. Therefore, it becomes clear that both ethnic cleansing and genocide involve roots of ethnic and religious hatred and refer to the intention of removing an ethnic or religious group from a particular area. The only difference that separates ethnic cleansing from genocide lies in the fact that ethnic cleansing is more of the nature of forced migrations, while genocide strictly involves absolute elimination through mass murders and brutal killings.
The global community deserves to understand the difference between these two ambiguous concepts since this distinction outlines the extent of the destruction caused, the extent to which people are targeted, and the explanations for why they are targeted. In short, the international scholar community must become more attentive to the finer details of each case of genocide and ethnic cleansing, as these populations who suffer horrendous crimes deserve legal justice. The international community will become further misguided if they only engage in legal debates surrounding the crimes committed, rather than become focused on their moral responsibility of proactively preventing future crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing by way of clear identification.
Image credit: Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso
Ellis-Petersen, H. (2018, August 27). Myanmar’s military accused of genocide in damning UN report. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/27/myanmars- military-accused-of-genocide-by-damning-un-report
Lieberman, B. (2010). ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ versus Genocide? Oxford Handbooks Online. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232116.013.0003
Ratelle, J. F. (November, 2016). Lecture on Introduction to the Study of Conflicts and Human Rights. Personal Collection of J.F. Ratelle, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON
United Nations. (n.d.) United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Retrieved December 13, 2016 from http://www.icty.org/
United Nations of the Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. (1951). Retrieved December 13, 2016 from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CrimeOfGenocide.aspx
Warikoo, K. (2014). Religion and security in South and Central Asia. London: Routledge.