Ethnic cleansing

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Ethnic cleansing is the systematic forced removal of ethnic, racial and/or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, often with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous.[1][page needed] The forces which may be applied may be various forms of forced migration (deportation, population transfer), intimidation, as well as genocide and genocidal rape.

Ethnic cleansing is usually accompanied by efforts to remove physical and cultural evidence of the targeted group in the territory through the destruction of homes, social centers, farms, and infrastructure, as well as through the desecration of monuments, cemeteries, and places of worship.

The Batak massacre, an example of ethnic cleansing by Ottoman irregular troops in Bulgaria in 1876.

Although ethnic cleansing has occurred during human history, the term was initially used by the perpetrators during the Yugoslav Wars and cited in this context as a euphemism akin to that of Nazi Germany's "Final Solution", by the 1990s, and gained widespread acceptance due to journalism and the media's heightened use of the term in its generic meaning.[2]


An antecedent to the term is the Greek word andrapodismos (Greek: ἀνδραποδισμός; lit. "enslavement"), which was used in ancient texts to describe atrocities that accompanied Alexander the Great's conquest of Thebes in 335 BC.[3] In the early 1900s, regional variants of the term could be found among the Czechs (očista), the Poles (czystki etniczne), the French (épuration) and the Germans (Säuberung).[4][page needed] A 1913 Carnegie Endowment report condemning the actions of all participants in the Balkan Wars contained various new terms to describe brutalities committed toward ethnic groups.[5]

Massacres of Poles in Volhynia in 1943. Most Poles of Volhynia (now in Ukraine) had either been murdered or had fled the area.

During World War II, the euphemism čišćenje terena ("cleansing the terrain") was used by the Croatian Ustaše to describe military actions in which non-Croats were purposely killed or otherwise uprooted from their homes.[6] Viktor Gutić, a senior Ustaše leader, was one of the first Croatian nationalists on record to use the term as a euphemism for committing atrocities against Serbs.[7] The term was later used in the internal memorandums of Serbian Chetniks in reference to a number of retaliatory massacres they committed against Bosniaks and Croats between 1941 and 1945.[8] The Russian phrase очистка границ (ochistka granits; lit. "cleansing of borders") was used in Soviet documents of the early 1930s to refer to the forced resettlement of Polish people from the 22-kilometre (14 mi) border zone in the Byelorussian and Ukrainian SSRs. This process was repeated on an even larger scale in 1939–41, involving many other groups suspected of disloyalty towards the Soviet Union.[9] During The Holocaust, Nazi Germany pursued a policy of ensuring that Europe was "cleansed of Jews" (Judenrein).[10]

In its complete form, the term appeared for the first time in the Romanian language (purificare etnică) in an address by Vice Prime Minister Mihai Antonescu to cabinet members in July 1941. After the beginning of the invasion of the USSR,[clarification needed] he concluded: “I do not know when the Romanians will have such chance for ethnic cleansing."[11] In the 1980s, the Soviets used the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe the inter-ethnic violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.[3] At around the same time, the Yugoslav media used it to describe what they alleged was an Albanian nationalist plot to force all Serbs to leave Kosovo. It was widely popularized by the Western media during the Bosnian War (1992–95). The first recorded mention of its use in the Western media can be traced back to an article in The New York Times dated 15 April 1992, in a quote by an anonymous Western diplomat.[6]

Synonyms include ethnic purification.[12]


Rwandan genocide Murambi bodies

The Final Report of the Commission of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 defined ethnic cleansing as "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas".[13] In its previous, first interim report it noted, "[b]ased on the many reports describing the policy and practices conducted in the former Yugoslavia, [that] 'ethnic cleansing' has been carried out by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property. Those practices constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention."[14]

The official United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing is "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group".[15]

As a category, ethnic cleansing encompasses a continuum or spectrum of policies. In the words of Andrew Bell-Fialkoff:

[E]thnic cleansing [...] 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 a population from a given territory.[16]

Terry Martin has defined ethnic cleansing as "the forcible removal of an ethnically defined population from a given territory" and as "occupying the central part of a continuum between genocide on one end and nonviolent pressured ethnic emigration on the other end".[9]

In reviewing the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Bosnian Genocide Case in the judgement of Jorgic v. Germany on July 12, 2007 the European Court of Human Rights quoted from the ICJ ruling on the Bosnian Genocide Case to draw a distinction between ethnic cleansing and genocide:

The term 'ethnic cleansing' has frequently been employed to refer to the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina which are the subject of this case ... [UN] General Assembly resolution 47/121 referred in its Preamble to 'the abhorrent policy of "ethnic cleansing", which is a form of genocide', as being carried on in Bosnia and Herzegovina. ... It [i.e., ethnic cleansing] can only be a form of genocide within the meaning of the [Genocide] Convention, if it corresponds to or falls within one of the categories of acts prohibited by Article II of the Convention. Neither the intent, as a matter of policy, to render an area "ethnically homogeneous", nor the operations that may be carried out to implement such policy, can as such be designated as genocide: the intent that characterizes genocide is "to destroy, in whole or in part" a particular group, and deportation or displacement of the members of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group, nor is such destruction an automatic consequence of the displacement. This is not to say that acts described as 'ethnic cleansing' may never constitute genocide, if they are such as to be characterized as, for example, 'deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part', contrary to Article II, paragraph (c), of the Convention, provided such action is carried out with the necessary specific intent (dolus specialis), that is to say with a view to the destruction of the group, as distinct from its removal from the region. As the ICTY has observed, while 'there are obvious similarities between a genocidal policy and the policy commonly known as 'ethnic cleansing' (Krstić, IT-98-33-T, Trial Chamber Judgment, 2 August 2001, para. 562), yet '[a] clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide.'

— ECHR quoting the ICJ.[17]

As a crime under international law

There is no international treaty that specifies a specific crime of ethnic cleansing.[18] However, ethnic cleansing in the broad sense—the forcible deportation of a population—is defined as a crime against humanity under the statutes of both International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).[19] The gross human-rights violations integral to stricter definitions of ethnic cleansing are treated as separate crimes falling under public international law of crimes against humanity and in certain circumstances genocide.[20]

There are however situations, such as the expulsion of Germans after World War II, where ethnic cleansing has taken place without legal redress (see Preussische Treuhand v. Poland). Timothy V. Waters argues therefore that similar ethnic cleansing could go unpunished in the future.[21]


Some say that failed states see most mass killing, often in an anarchic manner. According to Michael Mann (sociologist), in The Dark Side of Democracy (2004), murderous ethnic cleansing is strongly related to the creation of democracies. He argues that murderous ethnic cleansing is due to the rise of nationalism, which associates citizenship with a specific ethnic group. Democracy, therefore, is tied to ethnic and national forms of exclusion. Nevertheless, it is not democratic states that are more prone to commit ethnic cleansing, because minorities tend to have constitutional guarantees. Neither are stable authoritarian regimes (except the nazi and communist regimes) which are likely perpetrators of muderous ethnic cleansing, but those regimes that are in process of democratization. Ethnic hostility appears where ethnicity overshadows social classes as the primordial system of social stratification. Usually, in deeply divided societies, categories such as class and ethnicity are deeply intertwined, and when an ethnic group is seen as oppressor or exploitative of the other, serious ethnic conflict can develop. Michael Mann holds that when two ethnic groups claim sovereignty over the same territory and can feel threatened, their differences can lead to severe grievances and danger of ethnic cleansing. The perpetration of murderous ethnic cleansing tends to occur in unstable geopolitical environments and in contexts of war. As ethnic cleansing requires high levels of organisation and is usually directed by states or other authoritative powers, perpetrators are usually state powers or institutions with some coherence and capacity, not failed states as it is generally perceived. The perpetrator powers tend to get support by core constituencies that favour combinations of nationalism, statism and violence.[22]


Academic discourse considers both genocide and ethnic cleansing to exist in a spectrum of assaults on nations or religio-ethnic groups. Ethnic cleansing is similar to forced deportation or population transfer whereas genocide is the intentional murder of part or all of a particular ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. While ethnic cleansing and genocide may share the same goal and the acts which are used to perpetrate both crimes may often resemble each other, ethnic cleansing is intended to displace a persecuted population from a given territory, while genocide is intended to destroy a population.[23]

Some academics consider genocide to be a subset of "murderous ethnic cleansing".[24] Thus, these concepts are different, but related, as Norman Naimark writes: "literally and figuratively, ethnic cleansing bleeds into genocide, as mass murder is committed in order to rid the land of a people".[25] William Schabas adds, "Ethnic cleansing is also a warning sign of genocide to come. Genocide is the last resort of the frustrated ethnic cleanser."[23]

As a military, political and economic tactic

As a tactic, ethnic cleansing has a number of systemic impacts. It enables a force to eliminate civilian support for resistance by eliminating the civilians—recognizing Mao Zedong's dictum that guerrillas among a civilian population are fish in water, it removes the fish by draining the water[citation needed]. When enforced as part of a political settlement, as happened with the forced resettlement of ethnic Germans to Germany in its reduced borders after 1945, it can contribute to long-term stability.[26][page needed] Some individuals of the large German population in Czechoslovakia and prewar Poland had encouraged Nazi jingoism before the Second World War, but this was forcibly resolved.[27][page needed] It thus establishes "facts on the ground"—radical demographic changes which can be very hard to reverse.

Silent ethnic cleansing

The term silent ethnic cleansing was coined in the mid-1990s by some observers of the Yugoslav Wars[citation needed]. Apparently concerned with Western media representations of atrocities committed in the conflict—which generally focused on those perpetrated by the Serbs—atrocities committed against Serbs were dubbed "silent" on the grounds that they did not receive adequate coverage.[28]


In many cases where accusations of ethnic cleansing have circulated, partisans have fiercely disputed such an interpretation and the details of the events which have been described as ethnic cleansing by academic or legal experts. This often leads to the promotion of vastly different versions of the event in question. [29]

Armenia, 1914–1923

During the beginning of World War I in 1914, following defeats by the Russian army due to a lack of proper leadership and preparation, the government of the Ottoman Empire banished all Armenian soldiers in desperation based on the belief that they were the ones to blame for the defeats.[30] What began as a military tactic, eventually, lead to a brutal genocide of the ethnic Armenian population that was living in Anatolia (Turkey) beginning with the execution of male Armenians and eventually ending with the forced deportation of Armenian women and children.[31] It is estimated that around 800,000 to 1 million ethnic Armenians living in Turkey were either executed or forcibly deported during World War I.[30] The Armenian Genocide has been recognized as a genocide by most scholars and nations due to its deliberate targeting of ethnic Armenians and the brutal fashion in which it was implemented and it has also been viewed as an act of ethnic cleansing due to the Ottoman government's desire to remove a specific ethnicity from its territory.[32]


The Greeks were also ethnically cleansed from Anatolia during the same period. At least 350,000 Greek civilians were executed and over 1 million Greeks deported to Greece, leaving only a few thousand Greeks in their historic homeland.[33]

Germany, 1933–1945

Recognized as one of the most extreme cases of ethnic cleansing in history, the Holocaust was the Nazi regime's mass murder of about 6 million Jews during World War II.[34] Accomplished in stages, the Holocaust began with legislation to remove Jews from German society before World War II. Concentration and extermination camps were then created to incarcerate and execute the millions of Jews who were living in Germany and most of them were either shot, killed in gas chambers, or worked to death.[34] Killing approximately 90 percent of the Jews who were living in Poland and 87 percent of the Jews who were living in Germany and Austria, the Nazi regime's motives, the horrific ways in which its victims were executed, and the number of ethnic Jews who were murdered make the Holocaust one of the clearest and least disputed cases of ethnic cleansing in history.[35]

Expulsion of German-speakers from Eastern Europe, 1944–1949

Following World War II, from 1944 to 1949, approximately 14 million Germans were forcibly removed from Central and Eastern Europe, from areas where Germans had been a minority since the Middle Ages, as well as from specific regions, particularly, from present-day Czechia, present-day western and north-eastern Poland and the Kaliningrad Oblast where Germans constituted the vast majority of the population.[36] Although the removal primarily consisted of a forced migration, approximately 2 million Germans were killed during the migration either by starvation, poor weather conditions, or beatings and murder at the hands of troops and mobs that consisted of Russians, Poles, Czechs or other locals.[37] The ethnic cleansing of Germans in Eastern and Central Europe was an outpouring of the hatred and negative sentiment towards Germans that was a result of the inhumane acts which the Nazi regime committed during the course of World War II and it was also motivated by the desire of European governments to turn their countries into more ethnically homogenous nation-states, [37] and to this end, the post-war borders of Poland comprised close to a quarter of Germany's pre-war territory. Many Germans, prior to their expulsion, were interned in labor camps.[citation needed] While ethnic cleansing gained virulence due to Nazi Germany's policies, the expulsion of ethnic Germans from all over Eastern Europe is described as the largest scale of ethnic cleansing in history.[38]

Around August 1991, the leaders of Serb Krajina and Serbia agreed to embark on a campaign which the ICTY prosecutors described as a "joint criminal enterprise" whose purpose "was the forcible removal of the majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from the occupied territory of the Republic of Croatia.[39] The Croatian population suffered heavily, fleeing or evicted with numerous killings, leading to ethnic cleansing.[40] The bulk of the fighting occurred between August and December 1991 when approximately 80,000 Croats were expelled (and some were killed). The total number of exiled Croats and other non-Serbs range from 170,000 (ICTY)[41] up to a quarter of a million people (Human Rights Watch).[42]Meanwhile after Operation Storm about 300,000 Serbs left the Republic of Croatia. See more in Serbs of Croatia
Year Serbs %
1900[43] 548,302 17.35%
1910[43] 564,214 16.60%
1921[43] 584,058 16.94%
1931[43] 636,518 16.81%
1948[44] 543,795 14.47%
1953[45] 588,411 15.01%
1961[46] 624,956 15.02%
1971[43] 626,789 14.16%
1981[43] 531,502 11.55%
1991[43] 581,663 12.16%
2001 201,631 4.54%
2011 186,633 4.36%
Serb population in Croatia.

The 12th anniversary exhibition of ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia, which was held in Tbilisi in 2005.

Former Yugoslavia, 1991–1995

Bosnia & Herzegovina, 1992–1995

Widespread ethnic cleansing and genocide accompanied the Bosnian War (1992–95), with estimated 2,700,000 people displaced within and out of the country. Large numbers of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats were forced to flee their homes and were expelled by Bosnian Serbs and Serb paramilitary.[47][48][49][50] Some Bosnian Croats also carried out a similar campaign against Bosniaks and Serbs. While it was recorded that Bosniaks also engaged in grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other violations of international humanitarian law, they did not engage in systematic ethnic cleansing.[51]

The methods which were used during the Bosnian ethnic cleansing campaigns included "murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, the confinement of civilian populations in ghetto areas, the forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian populations, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and the wanton destruction of property".[52] Creating the largest flow of internally displaced citizens since World War II, the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s is still apparent in the ethnically homogeneous regions of Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims that exist in modern-day Bosnia with politicians attempting to obstruct the undoing of the ethnic cleansing that took place during the war.[53]

Georgia, 1992–1993

From 1992 through 1993, during the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, the armed Abkhaz separatist insurgency implemented a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the large population of ethnic Georgians.[citation needed] This was actually a case in which a minority was trying to drive out a majority, rather than a case in which a majority was trying to drive out a minority, because Georgians were the single largest ethnic group in pre-war Abkhazia, with a 45.7% plurality as of 1989.[54] As a result of this deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Abkhaz separatists, more than 250,000 ethnic Georgians were forced to flee, and approximately 30,000 people were killed in incidents that involved massacres and expulsions.[55][page needed][56][page needed] This was recognized as ethnic cleansing by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conventions, and was also mentioned in UN General Assembly Resolution GA/10708.[57]

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, March 2017

Kashmir, 1985-present

The Hindus of the Kashmir Valley, were forced to flee the Kashmir valley as a result of being targeted by JKLF and Islamist insurgents during late 1989 and early 1990. Of the approximately 300,000 to 600,000 Hindus living in the Kashmir Valley in 1990 only 2,000–3,000 remain there in 2016.

Myanmar, 2016–present

Since 2016, Myanmar's military-dominated government has forced over 620,000 ethnic Rohingya who live in Rakhine State, northwest Myanmar to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.[58] The Rohingya are a group of about 1 million people (mostly Muslims and some Hindus) who live in Rakhine state but they are denied citizenship and considered illegal immigrants and as a result, they have been subjected to persecution and discrimination by the government of Myanmar and Buddhist nationalists.[59] Myanmar's government has cracked down on the Rohingya people and forced them to migrate to Bangladesh through violent actions, with rape, arson, and murder being reported.[60] UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has stated that “The situation seems to be a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” while governments across the world have called on Myanmar's government to take control of the situation and stop the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.[61]

Palestine and Israel

According to one reading[62] of the UN General Assembly resolution 194, Palestinian refugees are entitled to return to their lands. Israel has refused to accept the resolution and continues to introduce legislation to hinder Palestinians refugees from returning and reclaiming their confiscated property.[63][64] The Klugman Committee report, an official Israeli government report, revealed serious corruption in the use of the controversial Absentee Property Law to transfer East Jerusalem properties from Palestinian to Jewish settler groups.[65][66][67]

Criticism of the term

Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, has criticised the rise of the term and its use for events that he feels should be called "genocide": because "ethnic cleansing" has no legal definition, its media use can detract attention from events that should be prosecuted as genocide.[68][69] Because of widespread acceptance after media influence, it has become a word used legally, but carries no legal repercussions. [70]

In 1992, the German equivalent of "ethnic cleansing" (German: Ethnische Säuberung) was named German Un-Word of the Year by the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache due to its euphemistic, inappropriate nature.[71]

See also


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