24 May 2019

Text & Translation: Corinna

#Ethnic cleansing – an inhuman euphemism

Genocide is a highly controversial word. Why? It is more than just a concept or a tool for historical, political or moral analysis. Rather, it has legal consequences and is therefore treated like Pandora’s Box. In order to get rid of these legal consequences, the term “ethnic cleansing” is often used, which in turn is an inhuman euphemism as it is a term to speak of systematic mass murder without having to use the word genocide. “Ethnic cleansing” is present in some UN documents, but has neither a clear and formal definition nor a legal status.

Concentration Camp in Sachsenhausen, Germany

Ironically, the term “ethnic cleansing” was coined by the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. He first used the term in April 1987 to describe violence against the Serbs from Kosovo Albanian commanders.1 The term was thus first used by perpetrators to describe mass killings, rapes and other atrocities. Later the bystanders used the term to justify their inaction, and shortly afterwards also the journalists, diplomats and the United Nations. The frequent and often official use of “ethnic cleansing” implies to society that it is the right term for mass murder which does not meet the legal hurdles of the Genocide Convention.

#Ethnic cleansing, Judenrein and Social Darwinism

Rhetorically one can place “ethnic cleansing” on the same level as the Nazi terms “Judenrein” or “Rassenhygiene” (eugenics). These terms imply the existence of pseudo-scientific evidence as justification for the extermination of an entire group.2 Just imagine these terms were still used today in various UN documents!

Former genocides often occurred in a setting of social Darwinism, racial theory and nationalism – the victims were dehumanized to facilitate killing. The Armenians were described as “dangerous microbes”, the Tutsi as “cockroaches” and the Nazis dubbed the Jews “parasites”, “cancer”, “plague”, “tumor”, “vermin” and the like. The term “ethnic cleansing” plays into the hands of the perpetrators, as it labels the victim group as a source of dirt and disease which has to be eradicated.3 In recent years the term “ethnic cleansing” has been used more and more frequently. However, it is a misleading and derogatory term for genocide and it has a numbing effect in terms of intervention and aid, because it is not a “real” genocide.

Concentration Camp in Sachsenhausen, Germany

#crimes against humanity

However, the term genocide is also often used abusively and inflationary, among other things to get media attention or money. Should we therefore completely remove the focus from genocide and, as suggested by William Schabas, take mass violence under the criminal offence of crimes against humanity? This would have significant consequences for international jurisprudence, as almost every perpetrator of mass murder would be condemned, since the narrow definition of the crime of genocide, especially the problematic element of intent, would be omitted. It wouldn’t matter against which group the violence is directed.4 The idea to this concept is that, morally speaking, it shouldn’t matter which crime is committed as long as human suffering is ended.

#genocide as a game changer

Is the term genocide still a real game changer today? Isn’t the world indifferent to mass atrocities in distant countries due to the multitude of conflicts? Does the term genocide make a difference at all? Many experts say yes, because whether a mass atrocity is genocide remains important, as it still offers the opportunity to influence public opinion, mobilize people, and build international consensus on interventions, sanctions and aid. However, in order not to lose this power, the term mustn’t be used inflationary. Consequently, shouldn’t there be a term that is not quite so potent? Here again “ethnic cleansing” comes into play, but for the reasons mentioned above it shouldn’t be used as it describes, among other things, the perpetrators’ point of view and thus mocks the victims.

Concentration Camp in Sachsenhausen, Germany

#Ethnic atrocities?

Wouldn’t be the terms “ethnic atrocities”, “ethnic murder” or “genocidal massacres” an option, as Leo Kuper argues? These terms stand for “not a full genocide”, but do acknowledge that nationalism, racism and/or religion are central elements of violence.5 It is important how a crime is named, because words have an immense meaning – we humans think with words, we use them daily and they have always have some form of consequences – good and bad. The right terminology is also important for science, for historiography, for victims and their families and for law enforcement.


Of course one can argue about words and concepts, but to vex human lives and atrocities is perverted and serves only to play down human suffering and plays into the hands of the perpetrators and bystanders. “Ethnic cleansing” is a loathsome term that should never be legitimized and should not be used in the future. At the same time, however, one should be aware that the word “genocide” isn’t a magic word and doesn’t end the killing process. However, it helps to rethink one’s own actions, to reassess the situation and to develop an effective strategy/policy. Most importantly, the international community must respond to end suffering and to show (future) perpetrators that their actions are unacceptable and not without consequences.



# Blum, R.; Stanton, G.; Sagi, S.; Richter, E. (2007) „‘Ethnic cleansing‘ bleaches the atrocities of genocide“. Published in European Journal of Health, Vol. 18, No. 2, S. 204 – 209

# Hamilton, R. (2016) „The G-Word Paradox“. Abrufbar unter: www.foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/22/the-g-word-paradox-genocide-islamic-state-john-kerry/ (05.06.2017)

# Kersten, M. (2011) “You Say Genocide, I Say Genocide: Some Thoughts on the Genocide Debate”. Abrufbar unter: www.justiceinconflict.org/2011/06/05/you-say-genocide-I-say-genocide-some-thoughts-on-the-genocide-debate-2/ (05.06.2017)

# Saul, B. (2001) “Was the Conflict in East Timor ‘Genocide’ and why does it matter?”. Published in Melbourne Journal of Law, Vol. 2. Available at: http://law.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/1680222/Saul.pdf (05.06.2017)

[1] Blum, R.; Stanton, G.; Sagi, S.; Richter, E. (2007), S. 204
[2] Blum, R.; Stanton, G.; Sagi, S.; Richter, E. (2007), S. 204
[3] Blum, R.; Stanton, G.; Sagi, S.; Richter, E. (2007), S. 204
[4] Kersten, M. (2011)
[5] Kersten, M. (2011)


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