Words are important: in so many forms of modern human communication, they are all we have to convey meaning to each other. Yet too often, in the hands of politicians and the media words and phrases that have very specific meanings are twisted or diminished, almost to the point of becoming meaningless.
I have been appalled to hear how, in the last few days, the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ have been used by US and UN officials to describe the current unrest in Kenya. In my mind this is a clear degradation of meaning by people simply trying to attract media attention. People who should know better.
The current unrest in Kenya is of grave concern, and in writing this post I in no way want to diminish the seriousness of events in that country. We have been following events closely at work, keeping track of friends and colleagues working with our partner Church there. The violence in Kenya is serious and it is tribal; but it is also sporadic and localised; by no means is the whole country affected (at this stage).
The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ however, has a very specific meaning. It describes a deliberate and systematic attempt to completely wipe out a specific people group.
The Cambridge Dictionaries define the term as:
“the organized attempt by one racial or political group to completely remove from a country or area anyone who belongs to another particular racial group, using violence and often murder to achieve this”
“the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority in order to achieve ethnic homogeneity”
What we are seeing in Kenya at the moment is profound inter-tribal violence, and the displacement of people because of this violence. This is disturbing and a profound tragedy. The current violence is however pitching Kikuyu against Luo and Kalenjin; tribes fighting against each other. No one tribe is on top. As severe as it is, it cannot be described as ethnic cleansing: it is not systematic or deliberate.
To use such a loaded, specific term inappropriately is to see it gradually lose it’s meaning. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was coined as a term to describe one of the most appalling crimes that can be committed, such as that seen in Rwanda in the ‘90’s. Politicians, especially those in the UN, should be careful not to use it inappropriately, either to inflame already serious tensions on the ground, or to diminish the profound seriousness of some of the worst crimes imaginable.
Lets call the current situation in Kenya what it is (shocking, serious, inter-tribal violence), even if that doesn’t produce quite as good headlines.