Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide

Ethnic cleansing and genocide are very similar concepts that refer to the killing and destruction of entire populations. While the degree of violence and the brutality of the two acts is quite similar, there are some differences as far as scope and intent of the crimes are concerned. Furthermore, “genocide” is recognized as an independent crime under international law – and it is regulated by various treaties and conventions, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) – while “ethnic cleansing” – despite being condemned – is not recognized as an independent crime.

Difference Between Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide

What is Ethnic Cleansing?

The term ethnic cleansing emerged during the 1990s within the context of the conflict in former Yugoslavia but no official definition was ever provided by international legal mechanisms and organizations. As such, ethnic cleansing is not recognized as an independent crime and is not regulated by international treaties or conventions. However, the term was included in various reports of the United Nations Commission of Experts mandated to explore violations of international humanitarian law occurred in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. In its report S/1994/674, the commission described ethnic cleansing as “… a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

Furthermore, the experts added an analysis of the means and measures that might be used to achieve such dreadful goal. Such coercive techniques include:

  • Extrajudicial killing;
  • Arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance;
  • Physical and psychological injuries;
  • Forcible displacement;
  • Deportation of civilians;
  • Indiscriminate attacks on civilian-inhabited areas;
  • Military attacks on hospitals and medical facilities;
  • Rape;
  • Torture; and
  • Destruction of civilian houses and properties.

Although ethnic cleansing does not constitute a specific crime under international law, it may amount to crime against humanity and could fall into the jurisdiction of war crimes.

Difference Between Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide-1

What is Genocide?

The term genocide – coined in 1944 in the light of the Nazi systematic killing of Jewish people – consists of two parts. “Genos” (the Greek prefix) means tribe or race and “cide” (Latin suffix), which means killing. As such, “genocide” literally means “killing of a race.”

Unlike ethnic cleansing, genocide was recognized as a crime under international law in 1946 with General Assembly resolution A/RES/96-I. The definition of the crime can be found in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Following extensive debate and consultations, the experts decided that the term genocide shall encompass all acts perpetrated “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Such acts may include:

  • Arbitrary killing of the members of the group;
  • Causing serious mental or bodily harm; and
  • Take deliberate measures to prevent births within the group and/or to cause the physical destruction of the members of the group.

Such definition includes both a mental and physical aspect and the focus is on the “intent to destroy” – which is often complicated to determine and prove.

Similarities between Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide

Despite the legal differences and the problems of definition, the concepts of ethnic cleansing and genocide may appear interchangeable. In fact, there are various similarities that cannot be overlooked:

  • In both cases, minority groups (including ethnic, religious, or social groups) are targeted by a majority;
  • In both cases, minority groups may be subjected to a series of gross human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, forced displacement, torture, rape, summary executions, and indiscriminate attacks;
  • In both cases, the majority group may end up eliminating or destroying the minority group – even though that may not have been the original intention;
  • In both cases, the ethnic, social and cultural balance of a given area may be completely overturn;
  • In both cases, it is the group as a whole to be targeted, not the individual members;
  • In both cases, perpetrator may be accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity;
  • In both cases, the number of casualties is likely to be very high;
  • In both cases, the international community has the right and duty to intervene and condemn perpetrators as well as to act to ensure the safety of targeted groups; and
  • In both cases, international reparation and reconstruction mechanisms should be set up to ensure justice and accountability for the victims and their relatives.

Although the two terms are legally and technically different – and although ethnic cleansing does not constitute a specific crime under international law –, genocide and ethnic cleansing may unfold in very similar ways and may have similar consequences.

What is the Difference between Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide?

As mentioned above, the main difference between the concepts of ethnic cleansing and genocide lies in their definition. Ethnic cleansing entails the forced and permanent “removal” of one ethnic or religious group – by another group – from a geographic area and the subsequent occupation of that same area by the perpetrator group. To achieve their goal, the members of the perpetrator group can use a variety of coercive techniques that may culminate with genocide (i.e. the intentional destruction of the targeted group). Other differences between the two concepts are:

  1. Contextualization: even if it is defined and regulated by the 1948 Genocide Convention, genocide is hard to identify and halt while it is ongoing. In fact, as committing a genocide has serious legal consequences, the international community tends to classify mass-scale deportations and killings as ethnic cleansing. For instance, the current large-scale migration of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar to Burma has been condemned as ethnic cleansing, although international agencies and non-governmental organizations have urged the international community to classify the ongoing events as “genocide;”
  2. Scope and magnitude: while genocide entails the killing of thousands (if not million) of persons, an ethnic cleansing may be carried out even without having a particularly high death toll. However, genocide may be one of the ways in which an ethnic cleansing is implemented; and
  3. Intent: the aim of genocide is the destruction (partial or total) of the targeted group whereas the goal of ethnic cleansing is the displacement of the targeted group from a specific territory.

Ethnic Cleansing vs Genocide

Summarizing and building on the differences explored in the previous section, there are other small (but important) aspects that differentiate genocide from ethnic cleansing.

  Genocide Ethnic cleansing
Triggering factors A genocide can originate from the desire of an ethnic, social, political or religious group (not necessarily a dominant group) to eliminate and destroy another group. The most (sadly) famous examples is the Holocaust, when the Nazis – led by Adolf Hitler – killed some six million people, including Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and persons with disabilities An ethnic cleansing can originate from the desire of an ethnic, religious, social or cultural group to impose its dominance over a specific territory – which is generally occupied by another group. The premise of an ethnic cleansing is a desire for supremacy more than an intrinsic feeling of superiority.
Duration A genocide does not have a specific length. It may last years (i.e. Holocaust) or weeks (i.e. Rwanda). It is usually hard to determine whether an internal conflict or internal turmoil may escalate into a genocide, but the escalation can be very rapid. Ethnic cleansing can be either very slow or very rapid. In some instances, forcible displacement begins with the creation of dimes and other architectural obstacles whereas in other cases it may unfold quickly and violently.
Legal consequences As genocide is defined and regulated by the Genocide Convention, it is part of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and is integrated in many domestic legislations. Genocide is strongly condemned and prohibited and all perpetrators are held (or should be held) accountable for their crimes by both national and international courts. As ethnic cleansing is not recognized as a crime under international law. However, many of the acts committed in the context of an ethnic cleansing (i.e. summary executions, rape, torture, arbitrary arrest, etc.) are individual crimes – which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity – that can be punished by national and international courts.


The terms genocide and ethnic cleansing refer to catastrophic events that often bring about the destruction and annihilation of entire communities and ethnic, religious or cultural minorities. The means and the coercive techniques employed to achieve both ethnic cleansing and genocide are quite similar, and include appalling crimes such as summary executions, torture, rape, enforced disappearance, destruction of property, forced displacement, etc. However, the two concepts are fundamentally different. The term ethnic cleansing refers to the acts committed against one group – by another group – in order to displace and remove all the members of the first group from a geographic area – which will subsequently be occupied by the perpetrator group. Conversely, the term genocide refers to the intent to eliminate or destroy – completely or in part – a religious, social, ethnic or cultural group.

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References :

[0]Gaeta, Paola, ed. The UN Genocide Convention: A Commentary. Oxford Commentaries on Interna, 2009.

[1]Gaeta, Paola, ed. The UN Genocide Convention: A Commentary. Oxford Commentaries on Interna, 2009.

[2]Hayden, Robert M. "Schindler's fate: Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and population transfers." Slavic Review 55.4 (1996): 727-748.

[3]Mann, Michael. The dark side of democracy: explaining ethnic cleansing. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[4]Petrovic, Drazen. "Ethnic Cleansing-An Attempt at Methodology." Eur. J. Int'l L. 5 (1994): 342.

[5]Schabas, William. Genocide in international law: the crimes of crimes. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[6]UN Security Council, Report of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 780 (1992), 27 May 1994, s/1994/674, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/582060704.html [accessed 21 September 2017]



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