To Kosovar refugees, it doesn't much matter whether they have been "ethnically cleansed" or subject to "genocide." The result is the same - a human rights and humanitarian disaster by anybody's definition.
But to policymakers worldwide, the distinctions are important. Under international law, the label of "genocide" requires specific responses - at least for 129 countries that signed the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. (Switzerland will be the 130th.)
The convention came in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust that cost an estimated 6 million lives. The question today is: To what extent has the agreement prevented genocide - or allowed it to continue?
The record of the 20th century is not good: Armenians in Turkey; Jews, Gypsies, and others in Nazi Germany; opponents of the Stalin regime; Kurds in Iraq. Other places have become synonymous with widespread killing, terror, and dislocation: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, and now Kosovo. Millions of people have suffered for their race, religion, ethnic origin, nationality, or simply because they might have questioned the politics or economic philosophy of those in power.
Even though such events have occurred at least as far back as Attila the Hun and Ghengis Khan, it seems to have been more prevalent this century. Human population has grown greatly and is packed into closer quarters in some parts of the world, raising the potential for national, religious, and ethnic conflict.
The means of gathering victims and killing them have become more "efficient." Perhaps, too, the world simply is able to know more about it because of mass media, especially television and the Internet.
Still, experts ponder the causes. "I don't think we have complete answers yet as to why this happens," says Naomi Roht-Arriaza, who teaches international human rights law at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
"These are not generally questions of ancient ethnic hatreds. They're generally questions of manipulation by specific people for specific political purposes," she says. "What you get is a situation where a specific subset of the population is deemed to be responsible, and has to be wiped out in order to preserve your own family, livelihood, and life."
Referring to dictatorial regimes led by an Adolf Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic, Professor Roht-Arriaza adds, "What we've learned over the last couple of hundred years about how this is done is that it's not spontaneous, it's not simply a question of tension among groups. It has to be manufactured."
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish legal scholar, coined the term "genocide" in 1944 to describe the Nazi annihilation of the Jews during World War II. The Genocide Convention, which took effect in 1951, defines the crime as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group."
Political controversy and legal questions about genocide (and therefore about when and how to respond under the convention) center on several things, including determining "intent." During the UN debate on genocide, which began in 1948, some members wanted to include such acts committed against political or economic opponents, but that was defeated. Hence, the widespread killing in Cambodia - horrific as it was - did not fall under the international definition of genocide.
Why are the United States and its NATO allies responding with force in Kosovo when they did not in other cases of widespread killing or terror that forced large numbers of people to flee? (More than 621,000 people have fled Kosovo since internal unrest started there a year ago, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In all, about half of Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians are estimated to have been forced from their homes.)
There are two principal reasons for early hesitancy and the decision - so far anyway - to limit NATO's actions to air attacks: aversion to casualties, especially those that come in a ground war, and policy decisions based on what is perceived as national security or economic interests.
"National interests come first before human rights violations," says Alexandre Kimenyi, an ethnic studies professor at California State University in Sacramento. "That's why in Rwanda nobody was in a hurry to intervene."
Last week marked Rwanda's fifth anniversary of the beginning of the killing of between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis and others by extremist Hutus, their ethnic rivals. The US and other countries apparently declined to get involved in the three-month slaughter because Rwanda was not perceived as having any strategic interest. Some critics charge that racism might have been a reason.
Others note the situation in Rwanda came just a few months after 18 American servicemen were killed in a single, particularly shocking firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia. This may have tempered any enthusiasm for trying to intervene in what amounted to genocide elsewhere in Africa.
University of Delaware political scientist Kenneth Campbell calls this "strategic indifference."
" 'Never again' got trumped by 'Never use ground troops,' " Dr. Campbell says. "It's an attempt to avoid casualties among ground troops because there's a higher value being placed by Western decisionmakers on the lives of their own well-trained, well-armed ground troops over the many thousands more lives of the defenseless victims of these perpetrators. And to me that's a strategic indifference."
Harder to overlook
A year ago, President Clinton traveled to Rwanda to declare: "We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We did not immediately call these crimes by their right name: genocide." Having failed to respond there, and having been slow to respond in Bosnia, US leaders no doubt felt pressure to act in the face of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo.
These days, it's becoming far less easy to overlook episodes that may point toward genocide. Spy satellites, small pilotless aircraft, and other intelligence-gathering means can document atrocities and the large-scale movement of refugees. The media have become more aware of the problem, and more willing to report the issue than they have been in, say, East Timor.
Nations now are more willing to track down and prosecute the perpetrators of genocide. The UN Security Council has established International Criminal Tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity (including genocide) committed in Bosnia and Rwanda.
These are the first such international war-crimes bodies since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II and the first international action under the Genocide Convention.
Tribunal officials have begun investigating possible war crimes in Kosovo, including reports over the weekend that Albanian Kosovar women are being raped and murdered.
Officials also are less hesitant to use the term "genocide" to describe what is behind the masses of ethnic Albanians streaming for safer territory or, more ominously in the case of many men and boys, missing from the scene.
"Of all gross violations, genocide knows no parallel in human history," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a speech to the annual session of the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva April 7. "Though we have no independent observers on the ground, the signs are that it may be happening, once more, in Kosovo."
A day before, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "It is right to stop the ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the other indicators of genocide that we see."
Some observers - particularly in Israel - caution against using the term "genocide" to describe a situation that is far less costly in terms of human lives lost than the calculated killing of civilians based on religion and ethnicity was during World War II.
"I have problems with its application to Kosovo," says Holocaust survivor and documentarian Elie Wiesel.
But in a column in Newsweek magazine, Mr. Wiesel wrote: "Faced with Milosevic's stubborn policy of ethnic cleansing, no self-respecting government or nation could knowingly violate the biblical injunction 'Thou shall not stand idly by.' "