“Ethnic cleansing” has been defined as the attempt to get rid of (through deportation, displacement or even mass killing) members of an unwanted ethnic group in order to establish an ethnically homogenous geographic area. Closely related, the word genocide is generally construed as the deliberate execution of a group. Though “cleansing” campaigns for ethnic or religious reasons have existed throughout history, the rise of extreme nationalist movements during the 20th century led to an unprecedented level of ethnically motivated brutality, including the Turkish massacre of Armenians during World War I; the Nazi Holocaust’s annihilation of some six million European Jews; and the forced displacement and mass killings carried out in the former Yugoslavia and the African country of Rwanda during the 1990s.
Definition of Ethnic Cleansing
The phrase “ethnic cleansing” came into wide usage in the 1990s, to describe the treatment suffered by particular ethnic groups during conflicts that erupted after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. After the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence in March 1992, Bosnian Serb forces waged a systematic campaign–including forced deportation, murder, torture and rape–to expel Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians from territory in eastern Bosnia. This violence culminated in the massacre of as many as 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at the town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
In his 1993 article “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing,” published in the magazine “Foreign Affairs,” Andrew Bell-Fialkoff writes that the aim of the Serbian campaign was “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 those.” Using this definition, Bell-Fialkoff and many observers of history consider the aggressive displacement of Native Americans by European settlers in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries an example of ethnic cleansing. By contrast, the removal of thousands of Africans from their native lands for the purpose of slavery would not be classified as ethnic cleansing, as the intent of these actions was not to expel a particular group.
Ethnic Cleansing Throughout History
According to Bell-Fialkoff and others, the Assyrian Empire practiced ethnic cleansing when it forced millions of people in conquered lands to resettle between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C. Groups such as the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans continued this practice, though not always on such a large scale and often to procure slave labor. During the Middle Ages, religion rather than ethnicity was a main source of persecution; episodes of religious cleansing tended to target Jews, often the largest minority in European countries. In Spain, which had a large population of Jews and of Muslims, Jews were expelled in 1492 and Muslims in 1502; those who remained were forced to convert to Christianity, though all Muslim converts (called Moriscos) were expelled in the early 17th century. In North America, most Native Americans in North America were forced to resettle in territory allotted to them by the mid-19th century; Andrew Jackson and the U.S. Congress helped this process with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. When the Homestead Act of 1862 opened up most of the remaining lands to white settlers, those tribes who resisted–such as the Sioux, Comanche and Arapaho–were brutally crushed.
Despite these examples, some scholars argue that ethnic cleansing in its strictest sense is a 20th-century phenomenon. In contrast to forced resettlement movements of the past, 20th-century ethnic cleansing efforts have been driven by the rise of nationalist movements with racist theories fed by the desire to “purify” the nation by expelling (and in many cases destroying) groups considered “alien.” This was the case in the 1990s, both in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, where members of the majority Hutu ethnic group massacred hundreds of thousands of people, mostly minority Tutsis, from April to July 1994. The most prominent example of extremist nationalism-fueled ethnic cleansing was, of course, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany and its ceaseless campaign against Jews in German-controlled territory from 1933-1945. This movement began with cleansing by deportation and ended in the horrific “final solution”–the destruction of some six million Jews (along with 250,000 Gypsies and the same number of homosexuals) in concentration camps and mass killing centers.
The term ethnic cleansing has also been used to refer to the treatment of Chechens who fled Grozny and other areas of Chechnya after Russia began military operations against separatists there during the 1990s, as well as the killing or forcible removal from their homes of refugees from East Timor by Indonesian militants after a vote for independence in 1999. Most recently, it has been applied to the events occurring since 2003 in the Darfur region of Sudan, where brutal clashes between rebel groups and Sudanese military forces have left hundreds of thousands dead and more than 2 million displaced (many of whom, like the rebels, are members of the Fur, Zaghawa and Masaalit ethnic groups).
Ethnic Cleansing vs. Genocide
Events in Darfur have intensified a longstanding debate about the difference–if any–that exists between ethnic cleansing (which is a descriptive, not a legal term) and genocide, which was designated an international crime by the United Nations in 1948. Some equate the two, while others argue that while the main goal of genocide is to physically destroy entire racial, ethnic or religious groups, the aim of ethnic cleansing is to establish ethnic homogeneity, which does not necessarily mean mass killings but can be achieved by other methods. During the 1990s, the term “ethnic cleansing” was applied to the ongoing atrocities being committed in Bosnia and Rwanda; its acceptance as a description by U.S. and other U.N. Security Council members allowed them to avoid calling these acts “genocide,” which would have required intervention under international law.
Since then, the two international tribunals established by the U.N. during the 1990s (one for the former Yugoslavia and another for Rwanda) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 1998, have all debated fiercely the exact legal definition for ethnic cleansing. The ICC has linked ethnic cleansing more specifically to genocide, “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” stating that ethnic cleansing could constitute all three of those other offenses (all of which are under the court’s jurisdiction). In this way, despite controversy over its exact definition, ethnic cleansing is now clearly covered under international law, though efforts to prevent and punish acts of ethnic cleansing (such as those in Darfur) are still in development.