Check It Out …Ethnic cleansing, genocide, and ‘official’ distinctions (Nov. 29, 2017)


Recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had to declare the official position of the United States on the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
The Rohingya, historically called the Arakanese Indians, are a stateless group of people in Myanmar. The majority are Muslims. Under the 1982 Myanmar Nationality Laws the Rohingya people are denied citizenship. In 2013 the United Nations described the Rohingya people as the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Last year the Huffington Post published an article titled: The Rohingya are at the brink of mass genocide. It was written by Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, author of the book, The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide. Dr. Ibrahim said, “With these people so widely reviled by the Buddhist nationalist… There is no time to lose! Our leaders must force the federal government of Myanmar to intervene and reestablish order now! Before we have another Rwanda on our hands.”
But Secretary of State Tillerson announced, “After careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear the situation… Constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.”
So what’s the distinction between ethnic cleansing and genocide?
It’s hard to pinpoint the originators of the term “ethnic cleansing” but the term gained widespread acceptance due to its frequent use by journalists during the Yugoslav Wars that began in 1991. It appears “ethnic cleansing” is defined as a “systematic attempt by one political or socio-religious group to remove a particular ethnic or religious group from a specific area through coercive means. It includes both forced migrations as well as brutal killings to terrorize a minority population and force them to leave a particular territory.”
The definition of “genocide” made it clear there has not been a single description of genocide to satisfy all people, but “genocide” is similar to “ethnic cleansing” in the sense that a political or religious group decides to exterminate another political or religious group from their presence, but the means adopted in genocide are much more brutal as it involves mass murders.
There was an example given to make a clear distinction between the two types of atrocities and Rwanda was mentioned again. The example stated the mass murders of the Tutsi people by the Hutu tribe in Rwanda can be classified as genocide and the forced migration of the Hindus from the state of Jammu and Kashmir through the destruction of property and terror attacks can be classified as “ethnic cleansing.”
But when was Rwanda officially classified as genocide?
Samantha Power wrote a book called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power pointed out how the Clinton Administration “tied itself in semantic knots to avoid using the word genocide” while the 1994 massacres of more than 800,000 Tutsi took place in Rwanda. Clinton’s State Department knew that a finding of genocide obligated them “to actually do something” according to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which was drafted after the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, after the Clinton administration’s 1993 “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia the administration was reluctant to get involved in another African country. So U.S. officials refused to label the Rwandan massacres of the Tutsi population genocide and referred to it, while it was in progress, as “ethnic cleansing.”
The Associated Press reported that Secretary of State Tillerson stated those who perpetrated the atrocities (against the Rohingya population) must be held accountable. The Associated Press also reminded its readers that the designation “ethnic cleansing” carries no legal obligations for the United States to act.
So, we might have another Rwanda on our hands or, more accurately, to wash our hands from.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at
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