Ethnic cleansing has two central elements. It is a cultural and political project to construct particular groups of people as dirt and other groups of people as legitimate citizens. It is a military project to remove (or cleanse) the “dirt” in order to allow the “legitimate” citizens to live in an “unpolluted” territory.
People are defined as dirt through campaigns of racist hatred against them that portray them as eternally dangerous to the legitimate community. This racism asserts that they need to be removed not because of what they have done or what they may do but because of who they are. In order to expel whole populations, it is necessary to create a state of terror. This is achieved by organized mass campaigns of murder, rape, torture, and theft. In order to have a hope of escaping alive, people will leave with what they can carry. Grandparents, the sick, families, men, women, and children—all will leave the place where they live and begin their new lives as stateless, rightless, propertyless seekers of asylum. Logically it is possible to imagine a peaceful ethnic cleansing, but in reality, ethnic cleansing is always achieved through terror.
Ethnic cleansing is a term that was first used during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The leaderships of Croatia and Serbia aimed to carve out nation states whose citizens would identify with each other on the basis of shared ethnicity. The difficulty, however, was that people with Croat, Serb, and Bosnian identities also lived in interlinking and overlapping territories. The nationalist leaderships aimed to take territory by military force and then to expel those people with the “wrong” ethnicity. Bosnia, a territory with a Muslim majority and with large Croat and Serb minorities, was stuck in between Croatia and Serbia. The Croat and Serb nationalists in Bosnia were successful in taking leadership of “their” communities and, with the help of the respective mother countries, expelled more than 2 million Bosniaks from their homes and killed many tens of thousands. The Serb army and militias also ethnically cleansed much territory of Croats, and Croatia conducted a huge campaign of ethnic cleansing against Serbs, notably in the Krajina region.
Omarska, Kereterm, and Trnopolje were three of the concentration camps set up by Serb forces as part of the campaign of terror against Muslims in Bosnia. Many thousands of people were killed at these camps, and torture, humiliation, mutilation, sexual abuse, and rape were routine. There was also a network of dedicated rape camps where many thousands of Bosnian women were repeatedly abused. In July 1995, between 7,000 and 8,000 Muslim men were separated from the women and children in the town of Srebrenica and executed by Serb forces.
In Bosnia, and most strikingly in Srebrenica, ethnic cleansing was carried out under the noses of United Nations peacekeeping forces. As reports, pictures, and news footage of the terror in Bosnia went around the world, there was an increasing feeling that something must be done to help. There was also a self-interested fear among European governments that refugees expelled from the former Yugoslavia may appear on the frontiers of the European Union looking for asylum. There were many half-hearted interventions into Yugoslavia by the “international community” that appeared to be offering protection to the Bosniaks. These interventions failed, however, because they refused to use force to prevent ethnic cleansing. By 1999, when the Serb regime turned its attention to Kosovo, there was a different response. Although the United Nations Security Council refused to authorize help because Russia would have used its veto, NATO did act. It did not risk its troops in an operation to prevent ethnic cleansing, but it did carry out a campaign of aerial bombing of Serbia and Serbian forces until the Serbian leadership agreed to allow refugees back into Kosovo under the protection of NATO troops.
Ethnic cleansing will increasingly raise questions of the possibility, advisability, and legality of interventions from outside that aim to defend those at risk. A central question to be addressed by policy makers is how the international community can ensure that states or militias are prevented from carrying out ethnic cleansing in the future. Those who argue for military humanitarian intervention to prevent ethnic cleansing are opposed by those who argue that the principle of state sovereignty is absolute. Others oppose it on the grounds that powerful states are likely to use humanitarian intervention as a cover for imperialist adventures.
Ethnic cleansing may be prosecuted as genocide or as crimes against humanity. Following the Nazi genocide of the Jews in Europe (1941–1945), perpetrators were prosecuted for crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. International humanitarian law established the principle that such crimes were so horrific that they became the business of humanity as a whole rather than of particular sovereign states. It insisted that individuals guilty of taking part in such crimes could not plead that they were obeying orders nor could they argue that their actions were legal under national law. Now they would be held legally accountable for their actions by any state or in an international court. The Genocide Convention (1948) strengthened these principles.
In 1993, the United Nations Security Council set up the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which grew into an institution capable of prosecuting individuals for their parts in carrying out ethnic cleansing, including Slobodan Milosevic himself, the President of Serbia and the architect of the crime. A tribunal for Rwanda was set up the following year, and currently a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) is struggling to come into existence. The current regime in the United States opposes the ICC because it fears that American soldiers may be at risk of prosecution for war crimes and it argues that the United States constitution is more important than international law. Supporters of the ICC argue that if the constitution of the United States is upheld, then there can be no question of Americans committing war crimes.
Although the legal definition of genocide is broad enough to include ethnic cleansing, there is another sense in which ethnic cleansing and genocide may be thought of as distinct. While both involve the racist construction of the victims as unwanted and both involve mass killing and terror, the intent of ethnic cleansing is to remove the people defined as unwanted from a particular territory. The intent of genocide may be understood as a project to kill all of the unwanted people.
Ethnic cleansing is neither new nor unusual. Settler colonial states such as Australia and the United States were established through organized racist and murderous campaigns by settlers against the people who were already living in the territories. The Soviet Union as well as Nazi Germany specialized in using mass campaigns of terror to move or eradicate whole populations. “Ethnic” Germans were cleansed from Czechoslovakia following World War II. More recently there have been Russian campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Chechens, Chinese campaigns against Tibetans, and Hindu campaigns in Gujarat, India, against Muslims. Currently (2004), it is being reported that a million ethnic Africans are being burnt out of their homes in Sudan.
Benny Morris, the Israeli historian, has offered an academic justification for certain acts of ethnic cleansing. He details Israeli acts of ethnic cleansing in 1948 against Palestinians. His argument is that without the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians it would have been impossible for the Israeli state to come into being and that the Israeli state was necessary to defend Jews from a future genocidal campaign against them. Ethnic cleansing is always presented as self-defense; defense against those who it is claimed pose the real and enduring threat.
Yet Israel is far from unique in this respect. Most nation states were established through an act or a series of acts of ethnic cleansing. Benedict Anderson understood the nation as an imagined community. Contrary to the rhetoric of all nationalists, who insist that nations are natural and timeless communities, he argues that nations are socially constructed through the shared imagining of such communal ties. This is why the first element of ethnic cleansing, the construction of the victims as not belonging, is as central to its understanding as the terror and the expulsions. Before the terror comes the imposition of identity. Before the 1990s, most Muslims in Bosnia, and also in Chechnya, did not identify their Muslimness as the overriding and defining element of their identities. After they had been defined as Turks, invaders, fundamentalists, and terrorists by the Serbs or the Russians, after they had looked in vain to Europe and America for human rights, and after the Islamic fundamentalists arrived in Sarajevo and in Grozny offering guns, bread, and easy explanations, some people began to think of their identities differently.
Should we use the term ethnic cleansing if we do not agree that the process involves any kind of genuine cleansing? It is a term invented by the perpetrators straightforwardly to describe their project. The term is attractive because of its shocking simplicity. Contained within it is simultaneously an admission of guilt by those who use it and a defiant defense of the indefensible. It is a term that describes very clearly what it means to describe, yet perhaps we can subvert it, somehow, by using it ourselves.
- Anderson, (1995). Imagined communities. London: Verso. Bass, G. J. (2000). Stay the hand of vengeance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Hirsh, (2003). Law against genocide: Cosmopolitan trials. London: GlassHouse.
- Hukanovic, (1997). The tenth circle of Hell. London: Little, Brown
- International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, http://www.un.org/icty/
- Kaldor, (1999). New and old wars: Organized violence in a global era. London: Polity.
- Minow, M. (1998). Between vengeance and forgiveness: Facing history after genocide and mass violence. Boston: Beacon
- Morris, B. (2004). The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, 1947–1949. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
- Vulliamy, E. (1994). Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s war. London: Simon & Schuster.