The Difference Between Ethnic Cleansing And Genocide

“How could so many reputable and responsible churchmen have lent their support, even if only passively, to the perpetration of such crimes as genocide?” —J.S. Conway

In A Nutshell

When we hear of one group of people targeting another based on something like race, nationality or religion, the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are often tossed around to mean the same thing. To be specific, the end goal of genocide is complete destruction of a particular group, while ethnic cleansing is an expulsion of the group from a certain area, often encouraged by violence. While ethnic cleansing technically isn’t usually a crime (although the behaviors it describes are), genocide is. Not everyone wants to keep them separate, while others argue that treating them both the same is lessening the severity of genocide.

The Whole Bushel

Both the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleaning” have distinct emotions attached to them, and while they’re often used by the media as interchangeable terms, there are some important distinctions, even though there’s no formal, legal definition that’s accepted worldwide. When it comes to the United Nations, the two actions are completely different, and something labeled as actions of ethnic cleansing are not considered a part of the criminal acts of genocide.

Genocide is considered any act committed against a group with the intention of destroying that group completely. Whether the target is selected based on race, nationality, religion, or ethnicity, genocide is done with the end goal of completely eradicating a group of people. According to The Genocide Convention, there are a number of different ways it can be done, including the removal of children and the future generations of a people, measures that prevent the birth of a new generation, and, of course, the infliction of death, bodily harm, or mental harm on a certain group.

Ethnic cleansing, on the other hand, is the process of removing particular groups from an area. The same groups are often targeted in both cases, with race, nationality, and religion being major selection factors.

Where the methods and end goals of genocide are extermination, the methods and end goals of ethnic cleansing might be removal and resettlement, although that often comes along with a price paid in human lives. Deportation, expulsion orders, and forcible removal are all a part of ethnic cleansing.

The line between the two is often horrifyingly unclear, although the UN recognizes them as two separate crimes. Ethnic cleansing is considered a crime against humanity, while intent plays a huge part in the definition of genocide. For crimes to be considered genocide, there must be a specific end goal behind the actions – eradication.

What sounds simple on paper has been incredibly complicated in real practice. The ongoing argument is that there have been countless cases where acts of ethnic cleansing have had clearly genocidal implications, and that’s led to entire international tribunals debating whether or not acts of ethnic cleansing should be seen as genocide. On the other side of the argument, those in favor of keeping the two very separate state that saying ethnic cleansing is the same as genocide is a denial of just how horrific genocide is, likening it to what’s often an only slightly less horrific crime.

Genocide can be viewed as the ultimate step in ethnic cleansing, but even that distinction often doesn’t help to make matters more clear.

Perhaps most bizarre of all is the absolute lack of a specific definition of what is ethnic cleansing. Since there’s no accepted definition, it’s not technically a crime. Pieces of what make up the behaviors of ethnic cleansing—deportation, seizure of land and property, harassment, torture, and other such behaviors—are obviously illegal, but the debate over ethnic cleansing is still raging.

The whole argument really came about after World War II, when the term “genocide” was first used. At that time, the distinction was “intent to destroy” as opposed to “intent to remove,” although others say it’s a distinction that shouldn’t really matter from a moral standpoint.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Godot13
Expanding the Crime of Genocide to Include Ethnic Cleansing, by Micol Sirkin
Virginia Commonwealth University: Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide: Similarities and Differences

  • OldBoris

    If we’re using the definition that is most commonly used, by the United Nations, then genocide doesn’t have to lead to the total destruction of a people. It could even be argued, and I am a proponent of this theory, that by allowing and facilitating the mass migration of birth-strong Africans and Middle Easterners to Europe, the governments of Europe are guilty of genocide, as wherever these migrants congregate, living conditions for the native populations become so bad that the natives move out.

    • Jimmy

      I never thought about that but it’s true. It’s displacing the native culture and people, making it no different to the Nazis’ plans in eastern Europe.

      • IsaacLHawk


      • Hillyard

        Wrong! The Nazis were not interested in displacing the local culture/people they were trying to wipe them out and replace them with ‘good Ayrans’ major difference.

        • Jimmy

          Through displacement. The Germans would move in and force the natives out. The natives could then either die or go elsewhere, doesn’t matter. The end result is the same.

    • Hillyard

      One set of people moving in, and another moving out of their own accord is neither ethnic cleansing or genocide. Your comment reflects your overall xenophobia and bigotry.

      • OldBoris

        In all polls on the matter, a vast majority of Europeans have had a solidly negative opinion about non-European immigration. This has been the case since the 1960s and continues to be the case today. There is no ‘own accord’ on one side.

  • Jimmy

    Ethnic cleansing doesn’t have to unjustified. If illegal immigrants were removed from a country that would be ethnic cleansing but entirely justifiable.

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  • Hillyard

    The definition of genocide has become, in my opinion, greatly watered down. What was once considered ‘just’ mass murder is now casually being called genocide.
    Genocide needs to have a narrower definition and ethnic cleansing needs to be listed as a crime against humanity.

    • Jimmy

      Ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity. The issue is that it’s not defined properly enough, making it unprosecutable.

  • jake101goodale

    Personally I see nothing wrong with ethnic cleansing. In some situations the forced deportation of a group that is causing trouble is the best course of action. As long as lost of life is limited there is no issue.
    Genocide (mass murder) on the other hand is always wrong.

  • jake101goodale

    I don’t see ethnic cleansing as being inherently bad and certainly nothing compared to genocide. When it comes right down to it, sometimes two groups of people can not live in the same region and forceful separate paves a better future for them both. Yes, there is some significant short term hardship but it ends up working out. Genocide however sacrifices way too much human life to justify the rewards.

    For example: If Israel had ethnically cleansed the Muslims out of Israel, gaza, and west bank in 1967 and pushed them all into the surrounding countries what would have happened? It would have been rough for those people however they would have integrated into their new countries, the conflict would have ended, and future generations could have carried on with their lives. Instead we have an apartheid situation crushing the future of over a million palestinians, continued security risks for the whole country, and a whole lot of life loss.