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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Reframing "Ethnic Cleansing"

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Image: Open Canada

According to the United Nations, “ethnic cleansing” refers to “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.” Antecedents of the term have been found in Greek (andrapodismos, meaning enslavement), French (épuration), and German (säuberung) (Booth 2012).

During World War II, a euphemism was used by the Croatian Ustase, that translated to mean “cleansing the terrain” was used to refer to military actions that deliberately targeted non-Croats to kill or displace them (Toal and Dahlman 2011). The term was subsequently used to refer to the resettlement of Polish people in Russian documents around the World War, as well as in Nazi Propaganda, Judenrein (Fulbrooke 2004).

Regardless of its origins, the use of the term should to be reexamined, or introspected on at the very least. To suggest the idea of “cleansing” is also to suggest a sense of purification – of getting rid of all that makes something impure. From self-care to health-based detoxification, the idea conveyed by the term is to effectively suggest that all that is “toxic” is removed. However, when used to reflect a policy of removing a population group from a region, the term does not fit. Simply because no human is an impurity that needs to be removed, because no ethnic group renders any part of the world impure to the point that they must be driven out altogether.

To use the term “ethnic cleansing” is to center the need of the perpetrator: who sees space as their own, enough to disentitle another, by using the rhetoric of purity as the basis. It centers the agency of the perpetrator and justifies it through the use of a term that does not name the violence – but rather speaks to the “end result” in positive terms. Nothing about the range of different crimes committed as part of such a campaign can remotely, justifiably be called “cleansing.” Rape, sexual violence, murder, torture, and so much more cannot be equated to the idea of “cleansing” by any stretch of imagination.

Terms like genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity establish not only the nature of the harm, but also its gravity. In doing so, it places the semantic onus front on center on those that commit such heinous crimes. In comparison, the term “ethnic cleansing” endorses “impurity” and attaches it to an ethnic identity.

As an alternative, “ethnic erasure” – even though still a soft-pedalling term considering the catchment area it operates as for multiple forms of heinous crimes – is more appropriate. Given that the crime involves a deliberate effort to remove populations from particular regions through death or displacement, or systemic targeting with mass crime, the use of the term “erasure” speaks to the unfairness, the inhumaneness, and the crime that it is.


Booth, Ken (2012). The Kosovo Tragedy: The Human Rights Dimensions. London: Routledge.

Fulbrooke, Mary (2004). A Concise History of Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Toal, Gerard; Dahlman, Carl T. (2011). Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal. New York: Oxford University Press.

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