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Mass crimes against humanity and genocides

The term "ethnic cleansing:" Genocide-lite,
when you don't care enough to stop the bloodshed

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bullet " 'Ethnic cleansing' just did not seem to be hitting the mark ... We queried New York if ... Rwanda could be labeled genocide ... Little did I realize the storm of controversy this term would invoke ... in the capitals of the world. To me it [genocide] seemed an accurate label at last. ..." Roméo Dallaire when stationed in Rwanda during the genocide 0f 1994 when almost a million people were slaughtered. 15

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A term sometimes used for Genocide-lite: "Ethnic cleansing:"

The term "ethnic cleansing" was first commonly used to refer to the genocide organized during the early 1990s by Serbian Orthodox Christians in Bosnia Herzegovina. Their victims were primarily Muslims.

bullet Although that genocide was obviously based on religious hatred and intolerance, it was called an "ethnic" problem.
bullet Although it involved genocide, it was referred to as "cleansing" as if its victims were merely politely requested to please move to a different location.
bullet The "cleansing" part of the term might imply to some that the victims are in some way dirty, filthy and sub-human -- not worthy of continuing to live.

The term is still frequently used to refer to all types of mass murder and massacres, including the world's most serious current genocide in Darfur, Sudan (as of 2007).

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Ethnic cleansing criminalized in international law:

According to Wikipedia:

"There is no formal legal definition of ethnic cleansing. However, ethnic cleansing in the broad sense - the forcible deportation of a population - is defined as a crime against humanity under the statutes of both [the] International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The gross human-rights violations integral to stricter definitions of ethnic cleansing are treated as separate crimes falling under the definitions for genocide or crimes against humanity of the statutes."

"The UN Commission of Experts (established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780) held that the practices associated with ethnic cleansing 'constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore ... such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention'."

"The UN General Assembly condemned 'ethnic cleansing' and racial hatred in a 1992 resolution." 2

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Objections to the term "ethnic cleansing:"

As the UN experts suggested, ethnic cleansing as applied to the forcible relocation of people groups, has a habit of quickly degenerating into mass murder, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Author Andrew Bell-Fialkoff wrote in a 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs that "ethnic cleansing:"

"... defies easy definition. At one end it is virtually indistinguishable from forced emigration and population exchange while at the other it merges with deportation and genocide. At the most general level, however, ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these." 3

It is a very useful term. People and countries have used it in when a more accurate term would be "genocide" to describe any large-scale mass murder of a national, ethnic, racial, religious, or other identifiable group. Yet "ethnic cleansing" has no generally agreed to legal definition, and places no mandated obligations on the countries of the world. By avoiding the dreaded word "genocide," governments are not required to replace their words with actions and actually reduce the slaughter.

In mid-2007, a team of researchers led by Rony Blum of the Genocide Prevention program, Center for Injury Prevention, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, at Hebrew University-Hadassah in Jerusalem, Israel wrote an article in the European Journal of Public Health asking that the term be abandoned. 1

Their article abstract at Oxford Journals states:

"Genocide has been the leading cause of preventable violent death in the 20th–21st century, taking even more lives than war. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ is used as a euphemism for genocide despite it having no legal status. Like ‘Judenrein’ in Nazi Medicine, it expropriates pseudo-medical terminology to justify massacre. Use of the term dehumanizes the victims as sources of filth and disease, propagates the reversed social ethics of the perpetrators."

"Timelines for recent genocides:

bullet Bosnia, 1991–1996, 200 000;
bullet Kosovo 1998–2000, 10 000 to 20 000;
bullet Rwanda, 1994, 800 000;
bullet Darfur 2002–2006, over 400 000)

show that its use bears no relationship to death tolls scale of atrocity. Bystanders’ use of the term 'ethnic cleansing' signals the lack of will to stop genocide, resulting in huge increases in deaths, and undermines international legal obligations of acknowledging genocide. The term 'ethnic cleansing' corrupts observation, interpretation, ethical judgment and decision-making, thereby undermining the aim of public health. Public health should lead the way in expunging the term 'ethnic cleansing' from official use. 'Ethnic cleansing' bleaches the atrocities of genocide, leading to inaction in preventing current and future genocides. 4

The "Judenrein" term used in that article is German for "clean of Jews". It and "Judenfrei" (German for free of Jews) were terms used by the Nazis to refer to a geographical area that was determined to be free of Jewish presence. According to Wikipedia, the word "Judenrein ... demands that any trace of Jewish blood be removed as an impurity." 5 Achieving Judenrein throughout all of Europe was one of the initial goals of Hitler's Third Reich.

The article suggests that replacing the term "ethnic cleansing" with "genocide" might have saved the lives of tens of thousands of victims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur.

Kim Petersen, co-editor of Dissident Voice wrote in mid-2007:

"... former UN secretary general Kofi Annan lamented countries’ continued reluctance to honor their obligations under international law."

" 'We continue to lack the needed political will, as well as a common vision of our responsibility in the face of massive violations of human rights and humanitarian catastrophes occasioned by conflict.' Despite massacres of 'near genocide proportions' in the DRC, Liberia and elsewhere, 'our response to them has been hesitant and tardy'." 

"What is needed is an independent international institution fully empowered to investigate and identify genocide wherever it may occur in the world and to make public its findings. The ghastly crimes of genocide must not be left to the inexpertise of ad hoc bureaucracy."

"Countries must not shirk from genocide. They must speak out unhesitatingly, with linguistic clarity and act with forthright remediation. Elementary morality demands, though, that we confront, criticize, act against, atone, and repent of our own great crimes first before we can criticize, with any iota of moral integrity, the great crimes of others. After all, linguistic honesty is more easily practiced when one has a clear conscience." 6

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Ethnic cleansing and this web site:

During the first few months of 1995, the author of this essay grew increasingly agitated at the evening newscasters' use of the term "ethnic cleansing" while reporting daily atrocities in what was obviously a religiously-based mass murder among Serbian Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Roman Catholics. The "cleansing" later grew into a full-scale genocide by the Serbian Orthodox against the Muslims.

From this agitation came a conviction that the root cause of that genocide was religious intolerance. The Internet was in its infancy at that time, and seemed to offer a mechanism by which a group with essentially no financial resources could widely disseminate their views on the importance of religious tolerance. Thus this website was born in the spring of 1995. It was about the 20,000th site to go online. The Internet has since grown. As of 2007-NOV there were are about 60,000,000 active sites. 7

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Roméo Dallaire & Brent Beardsley, "Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda," Carrol and Graf, (2004). Page 333.
  2. "November 2007 Web Server Survey," NetCraft, at:
  3. Andrew Bell-Fialkoff, "A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing," Foreign Affairs, 1993-Summer.
  4. Rony Blum et al., " 'Ethnic cleansing' bleaches the atrocities of genocide," The European Journal of Public Health, 2007-MAY-18. Abstract available at:
  5. "Judenfrei," Wikipedia, 2007-NOV-27, at:
  6. Kim Petersen, "Bleaching the Atrocities of Genocide. Linguistic Honesty is Better with a Clear Conscience," Dissident Voice, 2007-JUN-07, at:
  7. "November 2007 Web Server Survey," NetCraft, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > Laws & religionGenocide > here

or: Home page > Religious violence Genocide > here

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-DEC-23
Latest update: 2007-DEC-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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