Ethnic cleansing is defined as the attempt to remove the members of an unwanted ethnic group in a region, commonly through deportation, displacement or mass killing. The goal of most instances of ethnic cleansing is to create an ethnically homogenous geographic area where members of the unwanted group do not exist. While ethnic cleansing has occurred throughout history, the 20th century saw a disproportionally large number of such incidents, including the Armenian Genocide in World War I, the Holocaust in World War II and the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990s.
Aside from killing people of certain ethnic groups, others can also be subjected to ethnic cleansing if their homes, social centers, farms and infrastructure are destroyed in an effort to drive them out. Sometimes, heritage sites, monuments, cemeteries, places of worship, religious icons and other symbolic sites are destroyed, particularly those belonging to the “undesirable” group, with the hopes that they will leave the land. It is worth noting that other types of removal of native people, such as the exportation of Africans from their homelands to be sold into slavery, are usually not considered to fall under ethnic cleansing as they were not done with the purpose of expelling a people from a land.
The phrase “ethnic cleansing”, also called “ethnic purification”, has its earliest record dating back to July 1941, in a letter by the Romanian Vice Prime Minister Mihai Antonescu to cabinet members. However, the term only came into major usage in the 1990s after the forced displacement and mass killings occurred in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. After the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina claimed independence in March 1992, the Bosnian Serb forces regarded the other ethnic groups as undesirables. They sought to rid the lands of the Bosnian Muslims and Croatians from eastern Bosnia. Some eight thousand men and boys were killed at the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995.
Although some historians maintain that ethnic cleansing only encompasses the events from the 20th century onward, others believe that ethnic cleansing has been present since the start of humanity. One of the earliest occurrences of ethnic cleansing-like behavior happened between the ninth and seventh centuries BC, when the Assyrian Empire conquered lands, forcing the millions of natives there to resettle. The practice was continued on a smaller scale in the following raids by Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. However, instead of forcing the people out of their lands, they often used them as slaves instead.
Ethnic cleansing may be called “ethnic”, but the Middle Ages saw more persecution of people due to their religions rather than ethnicities. Jews were often the primary target as they were the largest minority in European countries. They were expelled from Spain in 1492. Just ten years later in 1502, Spain also expelled Muslims and forced those who remained to convert to Christianity. However, in the 17th century, the Muslim converts were eventually expelled as well.
Many Native Americans residing in North America were forced to relocate to other territory by the mid-19th century with the Homestead Act of 1862. The majority of new settlers who moved in were white people, and did not want to live alongside the indigenous people. When some tribes resisted, such as the Sioux, Comanche and Arapaho, they were met with brutal violence.
Those who argue that ethnic cleansing, in its strictest sense, has only occurred since the 20th century tend to associate the act with the more recent nationalist movements that were driven by racism and a desire to eradicate foreign groups and peoples from their lands. One of the most notorious examples of full-fledged ethnic cleansing was the Holocaust in World War II, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. From 1933 to 1945, Hitler began to deport Jews from German-controlled territory, but soon turned to more permanent methods of getting rid of them. Six million Jews, along with Gypsies and homosexuals numbering about 250,000 each, were detained in squalid concentration camps. The prisoners of war either died from the inhumane living standards or were killed.
Ethnic cleansing is also used to refer to other instances of similar events, including the Chechen refugees of Chechnya after Russia began its military operations there, as well as the forced displacement of the people of East Timor by Indonesian militants after a 1999 vote for independence. Some of the refugees lost not only their homes, but also their lives. Unfortunately, ethnic cleansing did not stop with the turn of the millennium. The most recent case has been that of the 2003 conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties and more than two million without a home. Most of the victims were members of the Fur, Zaghawa and Masaalit ethnic groups.
Some people have tried to draw a distinction between ethnic cleansing and genocide, especially after the events in Darfur. Ethnic cleansing is a descriptive and not a legal term, while genocide has been recognized as an international crime by the United Nations since 1948. Debates are still ongoing as to the difference between the two terms. While some say that they mean the same thing, others believe that ethnic cleansing aims to establish ethnic homogeneity – which can be achieved through means other than mass killings – while genocide aims to physically eradicate an entire ethnic, religious or racial group by killing all members of that group.
This distinction is not merely of semantic value, but is especially important in bringing the involved parties to justice. Since the term “ethnic cleansing” is not a legally recognizable crime, it was used by the United States and the United Nations Security Council members to describe the events occurring in Bosnia and Rwanda. By avoiding terming the acts “genocide”, authorities of international entities were able to avoid having to intervene as would be required by international law if the perpetrators were accused of genocide.
The International Criminal Court, established in 1998, suggests that ethnic cleansing may be a broader term that encompasses “genocide”, “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes”. By linking ethnic cleansing to these other punishable crimes, ethnic cleansing can be covered under international law and the criminals can be convicted by international court. Even today, the legal efforts to address ethnic cleansing have not been fully implemented. It took more than twenty years for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to find the former Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, guilty of ethnic cleansing, namely genocide and other war crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to life in prison as part of the last major prosecution of those responsible for the Bosnian Genocide.
Regardless of its exact meaning, it can be agreed that ethnic cleansing forces oppression onto the affected people for no good reason. For all nations to coexist in peacetimes, different peoples should learn to give and take in order to live in harmony with one another. When this happens, there will be no place for the atrocities of ethnic cleansing in the world.