Ethnic Cleansing

4 November, 2007
Naimark Norman

The Serbs in Kosovo were probably the first to use the term “ethnic cleansing” in its contemporary meaning during the 1980s. They alleged that the Kosovar Albanians sought to drive them from their ancient homeland in a campaign of violence and terror. As an internationally accepted concept, “ethnic cleansing” came into the common lexicon of terms for social violence during the war in Bosnia in the spring and summer of 1992. Journalists, human rights activists, and Western politicians used the term to characterize attacks on Bosnian Muslims by Serbs. The idea of ethnic cleansing was to drive the Muslims out of targeted Bosnian territory claimed by the Serbs. Eventually, the term was also applied to similar attacks by Croats against Bosnian Muslims. Retroactively, it was used to describe the attacks of Serbs and Croats against each other during the war of the summer and fall of 1991 (Naimark, 2001:2).

In winter and spring of 1999-2000, the term ethnic cleansing was widely used to analyze the attacks of Serbs against Kosovar Albanians. While Serbs defended their actions as counter-insurgency campaigns against the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), the violence was characterized by the international community as ethnic cleansing (Power, 2002:468). The subsequent refugee crisis in the spring of 1999 threatened to destabilize Macedonia and the entire region. NATO intervention was justified as an attempt to intercede in a case of ethnic cleansing. Despite the bombing of Serbian targets in Kosovo and Serbia proper, the Serbs continued to attack Kosovar Albanians and drive them from their homes. From the perspective of international law, the intervention was clearly illegal; a sovereign country was attacked and bombed without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. The powerful negative resonance of ethnic cleansing, both as a concept and in reality, overcame the political hesitations and legal obstacles to intervention. NATO's active role in Macedonia in 2000-2001 was prompted by the desire to preempt ethnic cleansing. On the whole, NATO's involvement, bolstered by the interest of the European Union, was successful. International control of Kosovo has not been able to prevent a form of “reverse ethnic cleansing.” To this day (fall 2006), the Serbs continue to complain of attempts by Kosovar Albanians to drive them from their homes and villages.

Beyond the Balkans, ethnic cleansing has been carried out against minority peoples in Indonesia and the Caucasus. Recent Russian attempts to expel Georgians from Moscow have been classified as the preliminaries to ethnic cleansing. The case of Darfur in Sudan represents a particularly deadly case of ethnic cleansing in contemporary world politics. The Janjaweed Arab militias, with the secret backing of Khartoum, commit horrendous crimes against black Africans, also Muslims, whom they identify as “slaves.” The militias engage in killing and mass rape, both to punish their victims and to terrorize them into fleeing their native territories. In refugee camps in Chad and western Darfur, members of the Fur and other native peoples of the region suffer and die in the tens of thousands from disease, exposure, and malnutrition. Forces of the African Union have been deployed to try to control the situation. U.N. attempts to introduce NATO troops into Darfur have run up against the objections of the government of Sudan.

From the outset of the war in the former Yugoslavia, some analysts and human rights activists challenged (and continue to challenge) the validity of the term ethnic cleansing as a euphemism for genocide. But the term continues to be applied in useful ways to distinguish this “crime against humanity” and “war crime” from genocide, “the crime of crimes.” The definition of genocide, codified in the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948, and upheld in the International Courts formed for the purposes of trying criminals from the wars in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, focuses on the intentional murder of part or all of a particular ethnic, religious, or national group (Schabas, 2000:ch.2). The purpose of ethnic cleansing is the forced removal of a population from a designated piece of territory. Although campaigns of ethnic cleansing can lead to genocide or have genocidal effects, they constitute a fundamentally different kind of criminal action against an ethnic, religious, or national group. The transcripts of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) frequently mention ethnic cleansing, but subsume it under the category of forced deportation, a crime against humanity that was widespread particularly in Bosnia. The courts have not clearly established ethnic cleansing as a category of criminal offense, leaving room for ambiguity about its precise judicial meaning.

Genocide, on the other hand, has a juridical status going back to Raphael Lemkin's mostly unsuccessful attempt to have it inserted in the Nuremberg indictments in 1946-47 (Power, 2002:49). There is now a substantial and growing body of case law that provides definitions of genocide and its meaning for international law. In the ICTY, the bar for genocide has been placed so high that it has been extremely difficult to prove that particular individuals committed genocide. General Radoslav Krstic, indicted and initially convicted for genocide, won an appeal and was convicted only of being “an accomplice of genocide” ("Prosecutor v. Krstic":56). At the same time, the mass murder of roughly 7,500 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica has been designated at the courts as genocide.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing occupy adjacent positions on a spectrum of attacks on nations or on religious and ethnic groups (Naimark, 2001:3; Semelin, 2005:81). At one extreme, ethnic cleansing is closer to forced deportation and what has been called “population transfer.” The idea is to get people to move, and the means used to this end range from the legal to the semi-legal. At the other extreme, ethnic cleansing and genocide are distinguishable only by the ultimate intent. Here, both literally and figuratively, ethnic cleansing bleeds into genocide, as mass murder is committed in order to rid the land of a people. Michael Mann, in fact, thinks of genocide as a subcategory of “murderous ethnic cleansing” (Mann, 2005:11). Further complicating the distinctions between ethnic cleansing and genocide is the fact that forced deportation often takes place in the violent context of war, civil war, or aggression. Only in the rarest cases do people leave their homes peacefully. Their families have deep roots there, and their elders are buried in local graveyards. Their cultures are tied to the land that they or their forbears cultivated and to the physical geography in which they live. The result is that forced deportation, even in times of peace, can quickly turn to violence, as native inhabitants are ripped from their home villages and towns, and killed when they try to stay.

Ethnic cleansing sometimes takes on genocidal overtones at the initial point of deportation. But victims also often die in transit or in refugee camps at their eventual destinations. The history of ethnic cleansing is replete with cases where transportation on foot in long treks, in rail cars, in the holds of ships, or buses causes severe deprivation, hunger, starvation, and death by disease. Hunger and disease-ridden refugee camps similarly contribute to the high mortality of people forced not just from their normal domiciles, but from their work places, their ties to the land, and their traditional sources of food and medical care. When international or state organizations are allowed to step in to help, they are often late and erratic in providing relief, as well as insensitive to the cultural needs of refugee populations. In short, the victimization of the ethnically cleansed cannot be said to cease once they have been chased from their homes. The terrible death toll in Darfur – now estimated at nearly 400,000 – is due less to the immediate violence of the Janjaweed militias than it is to the horrendous conditions of life forced on the refugees.

Scholars argue about the “modernity” of ethnic cleansing, whether it is a socio-political phenomenon that can be traced back to the origins of human history or whether it, like genocide, constitutes the kind of attacks of one nation, religious or ethnic group against another that belongs primarily to the twentieth century, “the century of genocide” (Weitz, 2003:8). There are abundant examples from the ancient world, documented in Homer, as well as the Bible, where ancient nations attack “others” for the purposes of expulsion (Bell-Fialkoff, 1996:7). The medieval and early modern world saw countless examples of such expulsions -- of the Jews, the Albigensians, the Huguenots, and the Incas and Aztecs in the Americas. Later, the settler and government attacks on North American Indians, Australian aborigines, and the African peoples by their colonial oppressors also could be classified in this way. In this sense, ethnic cleansing can be seen as an eternal feature of human history. Attacks of this kind do not seem to be characteristic of pre-historical human communities.

The twentieth century certainly brought with it aspects of modernity that made ethnic cleansing more virulent, more complete, more pervasive, and more hateful (Kaufman, 2001:3). The development of the nation-state and the end of empires gave the State unprecedented power and means to attack and transfer large minority populations. The drive of the modern State to categorize and homogenize its populations contributed to this phenomenon, as did the intolerance of “high modernity” for economic or political anomalies within their societies (Scott, 1998:4-6). Modern “ethnic entrepreneurs,” politicians ready to exploit ethnic and national distinctions through the media also played an important role (Valentino, 2004:234). The development of integral nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century emphasized the racial content of national groups, thus serving as a convenient ideological motivation for ethnic cleansing. The origins of “industrial murder” during World War I serve as the backdrop for a century of ethnic cleansing, as well as for the horrors of genocide (Bartov, 1996).

Prominent cases of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century underline its modern character. The Western-educated and modernizing Young Turk government attacked the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, forcing the vast majority on horrendous treks through the Anatolian highlands to Mesopotamia. These death marches ended in the first widely recognized case of genocide in the twentieth century. At the end of the Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22, Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk), at the end of the infant Turkish Republic, engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign against Anatolia's Greeks. The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 completed the process of the forced transfer of the Greeks by insisting on a “population transfer” between the remaining Greeks in Anatolia and the Turks in Greece. The Lausanne Treaty served as a pivotal international precedent for transferring populations against their will throughout the twentieth century.

Hitler is known to have said on the eve of his murderous attack against Poland in August 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?” (Naimark, 2001:57) The relative indifference of the Great Powers to the fate of the Armenians and Greeks gave Hitler every confidence that his planned attack on the Jews would rouse little opposition. He was right. Hitler's assault on the Jews began as a campaign of forced deportation and ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Germany and Europe. But given his murderous ideology and the opportunities presented by the Second World War, it quickly mutated into a program of systematic mass murder and genocide, what we know as the Holocaust. One can argue about the “modernity” of Nazism. But there can be little doubt that Hitler's racism belonged to the modern era, as did the quintessentially modern methods used by the Nazis to eliminate the Jews.

Other prominent cases of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century underline its modernity and its murderous character. When Stalin and Beria organized the deportation of entire peoples, like the Chechen-Ingush, Crimean Tartars, Kalmyks, Balkars, and Karachaevtsy from their homelands to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan during World War II, there was no demonstrable intention to kill large numbers of them. Nevertheless, the brutal processes of transfer and resettlement to barren and hostile lands served as the source of substantial mortality, perhaps as much as forty percent of some of the peoples involved. Similarly, at the end of World War II, when the Polish and Czechoslovak governments decided to forcibly deport their respective German populations (which together comprised over 11.5 million people), as many as two million may have died, mostly from disease, exposure, and malnutrition. In both sets of cases, the “modernity” of the operations was evident: in the completeness of the transfers, the nationalism that drove them, the State-defined legality that supported them, and the means of moving people from their homes. Although the “Germans” were ultimately responsible for the circumstances that prompted their deportation, their transfer should be seen primarily as a case of ethnic cleansing, one that was given an international imprimatur by the Potsdam Treaty of July-August 1945.

Many of the particular characteristics common to ethnic cleansing over the course of the twentieth century are exemplified by the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. War itself served as a cover for ethnic cleansing, offering both the means to apply force and the strategic justification for perpetrators (Straus, 2006:7). Yet the violence of ethnic cleansing went beyond the rules of war and involved the brutalization, humiliation, and torture of victims. In the campaigns to drive out all Bosnian Muslims (Serbs, Croats, or Kosovar Albanians), the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans also resembled earlier perpetrators (Lieberman, 2006:330). Similarly, attacks on women and mass rape, most notable in the case of the Serbian assault on Bosnian Muslims, was often part of the general process of ethnic cleansing. Instances of robbery, theft, the killing of animals, the burning of homes and extortion have accompanied ethnic cleansing, whether in the Balkans or elsewhere. The Yugoslav cases demonstrate, as do the others, that ethnic cleansing is not just about driving people from their homes. The eradication of their culture, architectural monuments, even burial places is part of the process. Ethnic cleansing is about eliminating entire civilizations from target territories, along with the peoples who represent them. The peoples are forced to leave, and everything is done to make it impossible for them to return.

There is every reason to believe that ethnic cleansing will continue to take a terrible toll on innocent human beings in the twenty-first century. Part of the problem is that international institutions have a very difficult time intervening in sovereign states for humanitarian reasons alone. Most of the great catastrophes of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the twentieth century -- the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Rwanda -- were well know to the world community. Yet little, if anything, was done to stop them.

The actions of NATO and the UN in Bosnia and Kosovo led to predictions that the international community had learned its lesson and that international organizations would enforce nations' “responsibility to protect” their citizens against ethnic cleansing and genocide (Evans et al., 2001). But the case of Darfur indicates how difficult it is for the international community to circumvent the principles of sovereignty for humanitarian purposes. On the other hand, Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate how easy it is to violate sovereignty for reasons of “national security.” Even when intervention does take place, it is very difficult to separate nations peaceably when they have experienced the ravages of ethnic cleansing. One of the fallacies of those who justify ethnic cleansing is that peace is advanced by forcibly creating homogeneous nation-states. Instead, long-term animosities and national traumas are created that can explode into violence and war.


Bartov O., 1996, Murder in our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bell-Fialkoff A., Ethnic Cleansing, New York: St. Martin's Press.

Calic M., “Ethnic Cleansing and War Crimes, 1991-1995,” Research Team 4 Report, Draft. 

Evans G., Sahnoun M., et al., 2001, The Responsibility to Protect, International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

Hayden R. M., 1996, “Schindler's Fate: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Population Transfers,” Slavic Review, 55/4:727-749.

Lieberman B., 2006, Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of the Modern World, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Mann M., 2005, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Melson R., 1992, Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Naimark N. M., 2001, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in 20th Century Europe, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Power S., 202, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, New York: Basic Books.

“Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic,” (2004), ICTY 7 (April 19, 2004).

Schabas W. A., 2000, Genocide in International Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott J. C., 1998, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Semelin J., 2005, “What is Genocide?”, European Review of History, 12:1:81-89.

Straus S, 2006, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Valentino B.A., 2004, Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Weitz E., 2003, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Cite this item

Naimark Norman, Ethnic Cleansing, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 4 November, 2007, accessed 18/06/2019,, ISSN 1961-9898