On the use of 'ethnic cleansing' in the case of Nagorno Karabakh

Originally posted on the Fediverse

I see there is some hesitance in using the expression “ethnic cleansing” to refer to what has been going on in recent days in Nagorno Karabakh.

Here is the textbook definition:

Rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group, which is contrary to international law. (source: EU/ UN Security Council: Final Report of the Commission of Experts established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780/1992)

Similarly to most definitions describing social phenomena, “ethnic cleansing” is part of a continuum, ranging from “non violent pressured ethnic emigration” to deportation and genocide.

Ethnic cleansing is probably best understood as occupying the central part of a continuum between genocide on one end and nonviolent pressured ethnic emigration on the other end. ( source)

See also:

“Despite its recurrence, ethnic cleansing nonetheless defies easy definition. At one end it is virtually indistinguishable from forced emigration and population exchange while at the other it merges with deportation and genocide. At the most general level, however, ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an “undesirable” population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.” ( source)

Concepts such as “ethnic cleansing” have emerged to describe specific phenomena, and then have been applied more widely.

In spite of controversies, in both popular and scholarly usage, “ethnic cleansing” has become an established term.

Since ethnic cleansing has emerged as the most accepted term to denote this practice in both popular and scholarly usage, I have employed it. Other terms—population transfer, forced migration, mass expulsion—are not appropriate for all instances of the forcible removal of an ethnically defined population from a given territory. ( source)

For that reason, both scholars and popular writers have now extended the term “ethnic cleansing” to other historical and contemporary instances of the forcible removal of an ethnically defined population from a given territory. ( source)

In the specific case of Nagorno Karabakh, we are now witnessing mass displacement of an ethnically defined community as a result of intimidation and violence.

At the very least, it is safe to write that this “amounts to ‘ethnic cleansing’", as the outcome is indiscernible.

More specific or descriptive terminology can then be used to refer to specific phases of the war, geographic areas, and situations.

None of these terminological debates should be used to diminish the ongoing human and humanitarian tragedy.


Martin, Terry. 1998. ‘The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing’. The Journal of Modern History 70 (4): 813–61. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20045626

Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew. 1993. ‘A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing’. Foreign Affairs 72 (3): 110–21. https://doi.org/10.2307/20045626.

Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst