“Ethnic cleansing” protects those guilty of genocide

In a post that sits firmly in the “other” category for this blog, I want to talk about the definition of genocide, and why it’s important that the apologist term “ethnic cleansing” is not used carelessly.

(For my regular reader: don’t panic! There’ll be another cycling post up in a day or two – a review of the world’s brightest production dynamo headlight.)

This came about because I stumbled across a series of posts from a number of people on a Reddit thread about a computer game (Wargame Red Dragon, since you ask) that genuinely (and without malice) believed that there was a technical difference between genocide and “ethnic cleansing”, and that both were legal terms.

I’m aware that there’s a strong element of xkcd Duty Calls about this:

xkcd Duty Calls

but still; this is something that politicians will use to mislead you. I think it’s important that folk understand what’s going on.

A background to the Genocide Convention

On 09 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 260 – the Genocide Convention. This was the culmination of a massive effort led primarily by a Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the word genocide sometime in 1943 or 1944.

Lemkin developed an interest in the concept of national-level crime during his linguistics degree, and the germs of what would become the genocide convention started during his study of the Ottoman destruction of the Armenians (1915-23) and Assyrians massacred in Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre. In 1933 he wrote about the Crime of Barbarity as a crime against international law, but ran into significant pressure from the Polish foreign minister (subjects saying bad things about your neighbours and allies being as unpopular then as it is now).

Although Lemkin didn’t stop campaigning it wasn’t until the horrors of the Second World War that his ideas earned global traction. Lemkin gained international exposure as an advisor to the Nuremberg Trial chief counsel Robert Jackson (a US supreme court justice), and with US support got the draft Genocide resolution before the UN in late 1948.

It’s worth a swift aside to mention that – glorious as Lemkin’s achievements were – he was also a colossal racist (although probably no worse than many others of that era). He was convinced that Africans were either weak-willed and helpless or cannibals; regarded the “civilisation” of black people by Western empires as admirable, necessary and philanthropic; and “argued vehemently that the provisions of the Genocide Convention bore no relation to the US Government or its position vis-à-vis Black citizens.”

Anyway, 147 states have now signed up to the Genocide convention. Note 16 countries (including the US and China) signed with a reservation that their citizens could only be tried for Genocide if they agreed to it. Boo, hiss, etc.

So, what does the convention say?

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Can be read here, but in short it: binds the signing countries to a definition of Genocide as an attempt to destroy in whole or part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group; makes Genocide, attempts to commit or incite Genocide, or being aware of Genocide but not doing anything about it a crime; and then says anyone accused of one of those crimes should be tried by a competent court.

Note the bold bit. If you suspect someone else is committing genocide, but don’t do anything about it (ie you’re complicit to that crime), you’re committing a crime under the Convention. This is why politicians will go to any length to avoid calling something a Genocide – using “tragedy”, “terrible carnage” or “ethnical cleansing” instead. If they call it Genocide, they have to do something about it. This can be awkward when it’s your ally (or someone who’s providing you oil…).

To be absolutely clear – you can be guilty of Genocide without killing people:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(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.
Article 2, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

There’s been some further debate about what “in part” means. If you wipe out a single Kurdish village, is that Genocide? What about a town? This came up as part of the Yugoslav War trials, and the tribunal found that:

…the part must be a substantial part of that group. The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups, and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole.
Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic – Appeals Chamber – Judgment – IT-98-33 (2004) ICTY 7 (19 April 2004)

Rounding up – Genocide is a legally defined term. If you see it, you have to do something about it.

So what’s “ethnic cleansing” then?

A bastard phrase coined by those trying to get away with Genocide, or identifying it but trying to avoid doing anything about it.

It cropped up during the Yugoslav War, when the US Bush and the UK Major administrations were desperate to avoid forcing themselves to act as the Serb forces massacred Bosniak populations. Serb commanders had been using “ethnic cleansing” as a sort of nudge-and-wink phrase to imply a friendly, humane deportation of Bosniaks out of Serb-occupied areas. US and UK officials pounced, seizing the term as a way of expressing disapproval without locking themselves into the complicity offence defined in Genocide legislation.

At the same time, there was a sustained effort to ensure that western populations only linked the term Genocide with the action of mass, systemic, Nazi-style murder. Therefore “ethnic cleansing” was mentally shifted from a synonym to Genocide to something less severe – a bit of a bonus all round to Serb, US and UK leaders. Cracking quote:

In Bosnia, I think, we all got ethnic cleansing mixed up with genocide. To me they are different terms. The horror of them is similar, but the purpose is not. Ethnic cleansing is not “I want to destroy an ethnic group, wipe it out.” It’s “They’re not going to live with us. They can live where they like, but not with us”.
Brent Scowcroft, US National Security Advisor describing the Yugoslav War

The Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosniaks neatly demonstrates how ridiculous that statement it.

It’s also just a nasty phrase in itself – that religiously-inspired cleansing giving the couplet a gleam that tries to blind you to the human misery it masks. It’s a word for politicians, spin-doctors, and war criminals.

By unthinkingly dropping it into text when we should be using Genocide (or, at least alleged Genocide), we become part of that deception.




PS: If this kind of spin talk bothers you, please get hold of Steven Poole’s book “Unspeak” (the quote from Scowcroft was lifted from that, and I’d have included more if I’d actually been able to find my copy). It’s a book that will make you very angry by drawing your attention to a load of linguistic slight-of-hand that has probably been influencing you over the past 20 years.

PPS: A Fun Fact. Gregory Stanton drafted a paper called The 8 Stages of Genocide in 1996. With the latest Tory plan to force companies to list foreign workers in their employ, a slightly tongue-in-cheek observer could suggest we were already at stage three (having ticked off Classification, Symbolisation and Dehumanisation)

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