Ethnic Cleansing

“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. 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 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.


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 1992, Bosnian Serb forces waged a systematic campaign-including forced deportation, murder, torture and rape-to expel Bosnian Muslim and Croatian civilians.


Events in Darfur, Sudan have intensified a longstanding debate about the difference between ethnic cleansing 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. By accepting this description, the U.S. and other U.N. Security Council members avoided calling these acts “genocide,” which would have required intervention under international law.

Two international tribunals established by the U.N. during the 1990s have debated the exact legal definition for ethnic cleansing. One 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. Despite controversy over its exact definition, ethnic cleansing is clearly covered under international law, though efforts to prevent and punish acts of ethnic cleansing are still in development.

Source: Ethnic Cleansing
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