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Dump the “ethnic cleansing” jargon, group implores

May 31, 2007
Special to World Science  

A team of re­search­ers is urg­ing doc­tors and sci­en­tists to lead the world in clos­ing the book on the phrase “eth­nic cleans­ing,” which has be­come com­mon in the past two dec­ades.

Call mass ethnic kill­ing what it is—geno­cide, the re­search­ers de­clared in an in­dig­nant­ly-toned pa­per in the May 18 ad­vance on­line is­sue of The Eu­ro­pe­an Jour­nal of Pub­lic Health.

Form­er U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Col­in Pow­ell's State De­part­ment led an ep­i­de­mi­o­gi­cal study that de­ter­mined in 2004 that acts of "genocide" were oc­cur­ing in Su­dan's Dar­fur re­gion. A sub­se­quent U.N. probe over­turned the find­ing, mis­sing a pos­si­ble op­por­tu­ni­ty to save lives, re­search­ers claim.


The cu­ri­ous phrase “eth­nic cleans­ing,” first pop­u­lar­ized by ac­cused Ser­bi­an gen­o­cide mas­ter­mind Slo­bo­dan Mi­lo­se­vic, is now ap­plied to all sorts of mas­sacres, they wrote; but it masks the prob­lem’s ur­gen­cy and thus helps ex­cuse in­action. 

Moreover, they argued, the term—while some­times used well-in­ten­t­ioned­ly—offers a per­verse hat-tip to the mur­der­ers’ own twis­ted world­view, in which vic­tims are filth to be scrub­bed away.

The insidious catch­phrase has found its way into the of­fi­cial lan­guage of di­plo­ma­cy and in­terna­t­ional law, even into me­di­cal jour­nals, the re­search­ers wrote. They an­a­lyzed the term’s bi­zarre and, in their view, blood-stained his­to­ry in the pa­per, en­ti­tled “‘Eth­nic cleans­ing’ bleaches the atro­ci­ties of gen­o­cide.”

Al­though nev­er rec­og­nized as a le­gal term, many have tak­en “eth­nic cleans­ing” to mean a cam­paign of forced ex­pul­sions, as dis­tinct from one of kill­ing. But in prac­tice the two things of­ten go to­geth­er, the re­search­ers said, and users of the term sel­dom make such dis­tinctions ei­ther.

The sci­en­tists an­a­lyzed use of the term in The New York Times for 1990-2005; U.N. press state­ments; in­terna­t­ional le­gal lit­er­a­ture; and state­ments from hu­man rights groups. They con­clud­ed that the choice of term “eth­nic cleans­ing” or “gen­o­cide” was un­re­lat­ed to ac­tu­al death tolls from var­i­ous events.

The choice is crit­i­cal be­cause “gen­o­cide” re­quires na­tions to take steps to stop the kill­ing un­der the 1948 U.N. Gen­o­cide Con­ven­tion, wrote the re­search­ers.

The is­sue is also partly a sci­en­tif­ic one, said re­port co-author El­i­hu Rich­ter of the School of Pub­lic Health and Com­mun­ity Med­i­cine at He­brew Un­ivers­ity-Hadassah, Je­ru­sa­lem. That’s be­cause of­fi­cial de­ci­sions to call some­thing a “gen­o­cide” can be based on epi­demi­o­lo­gi­cal in­ves­ti­ga­t­ions. One such “flawed” probe by the U.N. led to a de­ci­sion not to call the cur­rent mas­sacres in Su­dan’s Dar­fur re­gion a gen­o­cide, Rich­ter said in an e­mail. A pre­vious U.S. State De­part­ment stu­dy had con­c­luded with the op­po­site choice.

U.N. of­fi­cials did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. This month, U.S. Pres­ident George Bush did de­clare the Su­dan kill­ings a gen­o­cide. That earned plau­dits from some news­pa­pers, which ed­i­to­ri­al­ized that this could pave the way for fi­nal­ly stop­ping the deaths.

The four Eu­ro­pe­an Jour­nal authors, who al­so in­clude schol­ars from Un­ivers­ity of Mary Wash­ing­ton in Fred­er­icks­burg, Va. and from He­brew Un­ivers­ity Law School in Je­ru­sa­lem, wrote that the “eth­nic cleans­ing” eu­phe­mism “may well have be­come one more tac­tic to pre­empt pub­lic rec­og­ni­tion of gen­o­cide.”

The phrase’s history begins with Ser­bi­an com­man­ders in the Bos­ni­an gen­o­cide of the early 1990s, who used code words such as et­nicko cis­cenj (“cleans­ing of the re­gion”) to mean “leav­ing no­body alive,” the re­search­ers wrote. Such phrases, they added, ech­oed an ear­li­er Na­zi catch­word, Ju­den­rein (“Jew-free.”)

“From July 1991, jour­nal­ists and politi­cians be­gan adopt­ing the term ‘eth­nic cleans­ing’ which grad­u­ally pen­e­trated the of­fi­cial lan­guage of di­plo­ma­cy and in­terna­t­ional law,” ap­pa­rently to de­note events where gen­o­cidal in­tent was hard to le­gal­ly es­tab­lish, the re­search­ers wrote.

The U.N. used the phrase in sev­en Se­cur­ity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tions, they added; in­ter­est­ing­ly, U.N. doc­u­ments at first put the words in quota­t­ion marks, then dropped them. “The term, of­ten used with­out quota­t­ion marks, has al­ready pen­e­trated the med­i­cal lit­er­a­ture,” in­clud­ing the pres­tig­ious jour­nal The Lan­cet, they wrote.

But if the “eth­nic cleans­ing” talk is to stop, what should one call a cam­paign that real­ly does con­sist main­ly of forced ex­pul­sions, rath­er than kill­ing? Just call it what it is, Rich­ter ad­vised in an e­mail; for in­stance, “forced mass ex­pul­sions.”

“We call on the med­i­cal world,” the team con­clud­ed in its paper, “to lead the way in ex­pung­ing the term ‘eth­nic cleans­ing’ from use by the me­dia, na­tional and in­terna­t­ional gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies, diplo­mats, le­gal bod­ies and hu­man rights” groups.


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A team of researchers is urging doctors and scientists to lead the world in ending the use of the term “ethnic cleansing,” which has become common in the past two decades. Call the mass killing what it is—genocide, the researchers declared in an indignantly-toned paper in the May 18 advance online issue of The European Journal of Public Health. The curious phrase “ethnic cleansing,” first popularized by accused Serbian genocide mastermind Slobodan Milosevic, has been widely adopted to denote all sorts of massacres, they continued. But the new jargon masks the problem’s urgency and gives the world an excuse to avoid action, they added. They analyzed term’s bizarre and—in their view—blood-stained history in the paper, entitled “‘Ethnic cleansing’ bleaches the atrocities of genocide.” Although never recognized as a legal term, some scholars have taken “ethnic cleansing” to mean a campaign of forced expulsions, as distinct from one of killing. But in practice the two things often go together, the researchers said, and users of the term seldom make such distinctions either. The scientists analyzed data on use of the term in the New York Times, U.N. press statements, international legal literature and statements from human rights groups. They concluded that the choice of term “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide” was unrelated to actual death tolls from various events. The choice is critical because “genocide” requires nations to take steps to stop the killing under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention, wrote the researchers. The issue is partly a scientific one, they added, because official decisions to call something a “genocide” can be based on epidemiologic investigations. One such “flawed” probe by the U.N. led to a decision not to call the current massacres in Sudan’s Darfur region a genocide, said report co-author Elihu Richter of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah, Jerusalem. U.N. officials did not respond to requests for comment on the paper. This month, U.S. President George Bush did declare the Sudan killings a genocide. That earned plaudits from newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor, which editorializes in its June 1 issue that Bush finally called “a spade a spade” after much hemming and hawing by most governments. The “ethnic cleansing” euphemism “may well have become one more tactic to preempt public recognition of genocide,” added four European Journal writers, who also include scholars from University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Va. and Hebrew University Law School in Jerusalem. In addition, they wrote, the term—while sometimes used with good intentions—gives a perverse hat-tip to genocide perpetrators’ twisted worldview, in which victims are filth to be scrubbed away. Serbian commanders in the Bosnian genocide of the early 1990s used the code words “‘etnicko ciscenj’ (‘cleansing of the region’) and ‘ciscenje prostor’ or ‘terena’ (‘cleaning the territory’) for leaving nobody alive,” wrote the researchers. These echoed an earlier Nazi catchword, Judenrein (“Jew-free.”) “From July 1991, journalists and politicians began adopting the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ which gradually penetrated the official language of diplomacy and international law—with the implication that it applied to scenarios which somehow could not satisfy the legal requirement for proof of intent to commit genocide,” the researchers wrote. The United Nations referred to the ‘new term’ of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in 1993,” they added, “using it in seven subsequent Security Council Resolutions.” Interestingly, U.N. documents at first put quotation marks around the phrase, then dropped them, the researchers wrote. “The term, often used without quotation marks, has already penetrated the medical literature,” including the prestigious journal The Lancet, they added. “What would happen if a peer-reviewed article in a medical journal would have used the word ‘Judenrein’ without quotation marks just once as part of an objective technical description of the killing and expulsion of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II?” “We call on the medical world,” they concluded, “to lead the way in expunging the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ from use by the media, national and international governmental agencies, diplomats, legal bodies and human rights” groups.