Ethnic cleansing refers to the act of purging a region or area of a particular group based on its ethnic or racial identity, through violence and intentional oppression against the targeted group. Activities associated with ethnic cleansing include forced migrations, population transfers, appropriation of property, establishment of resettlement camps, threats of violence, and acts of violence (rape, torture, murder) on an individual and mass scale. Smaller-scale but equally insidious acts include prohibitions against citizenship and work; restricted civil rights; and restrictions on the right to bear arms, own property, use public resources, and communicate with the outside world. The intent of these deliberate acts is to alienate and exclude the target group.
The purpose of ethnic cleansing, a type of extreme action on behalf of nationalism or national self-determination, is ostensibly to purify a region or place. A majority or dominant group empties a region to occupy it. The offered justification for such a goal is often presented in either historical terms—in which the group taking the action considers itself bereft of past glory—or in racial terms—in which the dominant group claims that the victim has no right to exist within a territory. This drive to homogenize a place is not new, but the widespread and increasingly problematic use of the term is rather recent.
Vocabulary referring to the victims of ethnic cleansing includes such innocuous-sounding terms as emigres, deportees, refugees, war refugees, migrants, immigrants, and displaced persons. Norman Naimark and others have traced the meaning of the term ethnic cleansing in European languages, including chistka (Russian) and cicenja (Serbo-Croatian), as referring to political purges. The term compares with the German word Sduberung, which conjures up the concepts of eugenics and race as well as political persecution. The term emerged during the Balkan Wars of the late 20th century, when it appeared in use by journalists in 1992 to describe Serbian activities against Croats and, later, Bosnian Muslims, with the clear intent to convey that a population was being expelled by means of force and terror. It became a pervasive term in the press, from the New York Times, to the Financial Times and the Economist, to the London Times and the Guardian, to the BBC, CNN, and wire services like the Associated Press and Agence France. By the summer of 1992, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report used the term. This proliferation produced a debate about whether journalists had sanitized the term ethnic cleansing, rendering it an illegitimate synonym for genocide. A perhaps simplistic response would be that genocide may be a tactic of ethnic cleansing, but not all ethnic cleansing is genocide. The term has since been formalized by its use in war crimes cases. For example, items 138 to 140 of the World Summit Outcome, adopted by the United Nations on September 15, 2005, fell under the heading “Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” thus demonstrating that the term has acquired legal status.
Since its introduction into the vocabulary of politics and the media, the term ethnic cleansing has been applied to cases ranging from the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda. These may be the simplest applications, whereas others—such as the population transfers during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the exile of Germans from the Volga region in 1941 and the later deportation of the Chechen-Ingush and the Crimean Tatars in 1944, the expulsion of Ukrainians from Poland after 1945, the genocide of Armenians in 1915, and the ongoing crisis in Palestine—are more complex and contested instances of ethnic cleansing. Some point to events such as the Spanish Inquisition as evidence that “cleansing” against Jews, Muslims, and “the Other” has long been a legacy of Western civilization. Other postwar applications include attacks on Kurds in Iraq, crimes of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Sudan crisis of Darfur. This has led to a debate about whether it is appropriate to apply the term retroactively.
The question of morality also comes into play when equating ethnic cleansing with genocide or the Holocaust. Assigning the role of victim to a population is a weighty task and one fraught with pitfalls. For example, only after the reunification of Germany did a real discussion emerge which allowed for the investigation of ethnic Germans as suffering ethnic persecution after the war. Likewise, populations of other ethnic groups, including Poles, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, registered complaints regarding postwar population transfers intended to homogenize territories as a prophylactic against future petitions from a large ethnic minority and as a means for the Soviet Union to force East Europeans into a condition of dependency.
The justification of acts of ethnic cleansing can be interpreted as a perversion of the Wilsonian concept of national self-determination, taking various forms. In former colonial territories, it involves the invention or rediscovery of indigenous culture and power structures, which are then interpreted, or reinterpreted, along ethnic lines. In the immediate aftermath of World War II in Europe, acts identified as ethnic cleansing were a direct result of Nazi or fascist interpretations of historical destiny as inextricably linked to ethnic identity and Aryan superiority, as well as oppressive expansionist and genocidal activities in occupied territories. Thus, at both the macro and micro levels, invoking both legal justifications and illegal persecution, ethnic cleansing was practiced in Europe and elsewhere, both before and after 1945.
- de Zayas, Alfred-Maurice. 2006. A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Gourevitch, Philip. 1998. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador.
- Naimark, Norman M. 2001. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Power, Samantha. 2002. “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.
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