Ethnic Cleansing

The term ethnic cleansing refers to the removal of people who belong to a specific ethnic or religious group from a country, whether by forcefully displacing them, or by killing them. The goal of such actions is to establish an ethnically uniform country, or other geographic region. In addition to removing people, ethnic cleansing often involves removing any physical, cultural evidence of their existence in the region. To explore this concept, consider the following ethnic cleansing definition.

Definition of Ethnic Cleansing


  1. The removal of an unwanted ethnic group from a society, whether by forced emigration, or by genocide.
  2. The expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority, in order to achieve ethnic sameness.


1985-1990       English euphemism

What is Ethnic Cleansing

Throughout history, leaders of certain nations have attempted to create an ethnically or religiously uniform people within the state. This is accomplished by engaging in cleansing campaigns, in which all of the people in a geographic region that do not meet a specific standard are forced out or killed. The term “ethnic cleansing” is a blanket term that does not refer to one specific crime. Rather, it refers to the act of forcing people from their homelands, through the use of fear, intimidation, violence, and murder.

In 1993, the United Nations (U.N.) Commission of Experts defined ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” The Commission reported, to the U.N. Security Council, that the former Yugoslavia had undergone ethnic cleansing through the use of arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, murder, executions outside the judicial system, confinement of civilians, military attacks on civilians, and malicious destruction of public and private property.

When the Commission issued its final report in 1994, the crimes of mistreatment of prisoners of war and civilian prisoners, use of civilians as human shields, mass murder, destruction of cultural property, theft of personal property, and violent attacks on hospitals, locations with Red Cross emblems, and medical personnel were added.

The Rise of Ethnic Cleansing in the 20th Century

Nationalism is a collective feeling of significance and confederation of the people in a geographical or demographic region, who are seeking independence. The binding attributes may be cultural, ethnic, or simply ideology among peoples in a certain area. While nationalism is a positive thing, the force that binds peoples together around the globe, the 20th century saw a rise in extreme nationalist movements, which was exhibited in an extraordinary level of brutality motivated by ethnic cleansing.

Examples of ethnic cleansing movements in the 20th century include:

  • Turkish Massacre of Armenians during WWI
  • Nazi Holocaust during WWI
  • Genocide in Bosnia during the 1990s
  • Forced displacement and mass killings in Rwanda during the 1990s

Erasing a People through Ethnic Cleansing

The act of ethnic cleansing involves more than simply chasing a group of people out of a geographic area, and killing those who refuse to leave. Apart from the brutal treatment, intimidation, torture, and murders, it is common for the force engaging in the cleansing to attempt to remove all traces of those people and their beliefs. Erasing a people through ethnic cleansing means physically removing all physical and cultural evidence that the group ever lived there.

The destruction of monuments, places of worship, and even cemeteries is emotionally devastating to those who are displaced, who must also stand by and watch their homes, farms, and social centers burned or otherwise destroyed. Civilian casualties in a conflict in which ethnic cleansing is being used are not simply a consequence of war, but rather the deliberate targeting of civilians who are members of the targeted ethnicity, religion, or other group.

Ethnic Cleansing or Genocide

The concept of ethnic cleansing smacks of genocide to many people, though there is a difference, which lies in the intent of the perpetrator. The primary goal of genocide is the total annihilation of the targeted racial, ethnic, or religious group. Ethnic cleansing is more concerned with removing the target group from a geographical area. While the methods used to eradicate the target group from an area often mimics genocide, the scope and intent is the difference. Ethnic cleansing, even if genocide is not intended, may lead to the total destruction of the targeted group.

While genocide carries legal ramifications within the United Nations, the same is not true of ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, in recent times, the term has been used in the media so loosely, that nations committing atrocities that rise to the level of genocide hide behind the protection of the cleansing ideation to avoid consequences. Interestingly enough, while ethnic cleansing is undertaken to divide and separate people based on ethnicity or religious beliefs, these issues also have the potential of healing a nation – bringing people together over common issues.

Ethnic Cleansing Example of Military Tactic

In the early 1990s, as the Serbian militia marched through Bosnia, forcing out all of the Croat and Muslim people, their actions earned the title “ethnic cleansing.” Although the Serbian tactics couldn’t be compared to the Nazi Holocaust, the violent militiamen packed hordes of unarmed villagers, at gunpoint, into freight train cars, and burned their villages to the ground, as the trains headed to the closest border.

There were no Croat or Muslim death camps in Bosnia, but the people there were transported like cattle in sealed box cars, through the blistering heat, with little food or water. At some point along the way, many of the Muslim men were separated out and taken to Serb prison camps, while the women were raped, and a great many of these humble people were murdered. All this for the simple reason that they were of the “wrong” ethnicity, or had the “wrong” religious beliefs.

It is true that refugees are a product of any civil war, as the homes of people on both sides of the conflict are destroyed, and people flee in fear. Ordinary civil war, if any war can be called ordinary, does not provide an example of ethnic cleansing, however. Rather, the creation of refugees is the entire purpose of a civil war bent on ethnic cleansing. In the conflict over Bosnia, the goal of the Serbs was to drive out all of the people who were not Serbian. The Serbs then intended to take control of the cleansed areas, to form a “Greater Serbia.”

During the three years of the Bosnian cleansing, 1992 through 1995, many people around the globe became alarmed that, as the U.N. concentrated on its endeavors elsewhere, the Serbians’ horrendous activities seemed to go unchecked. The concern was raised that a failure to challenge the Serbs’ actions may send a message that the world in general will look the other way for all such acts in the future.

In this example of ethnic cleansing, NATO took action in 1994, engaging in air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. Discussions led by the United States ended the conflict in Bosnia in 1995, and a NATO peacekeeping force was positioned to enforce the ceasefire. In the following decades, nearly 200 people were charged with war crimes, most of whom were Serbians and Bosnian Serbs. In May 2011, the Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army was arrested, and charged with 11 criminal counts, including crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Ethnic Cleansing in Nazi Germany

Perhaps the most ill-famed example of extremist ethnic cleansing occurred in Nazi Germany, as Adolf Hitler engaged in a campaign to rid his world of what he considered to be “subhumans.” This malevolent crusade began with the forced deportation of Jews and other non-Aryan people from Germany, but Hitler’s plan did not end there. Hitler dreamed of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Master Race, believing that all other peoples were inferior. He engaged in a program of eugenics, which involved forced sterilization of those with impure genes, so that they could not breed; and segregation and extermination of millions of people.

During the 12 years of Hitler’s terrifying reign, he ordered the slaughter of 6 million Jews, as well as another half a million Gypsies and homosexuals, most of whom had first been herded like cattle into concentration camps and mass killing centers. Just who was set for extermination was determined by a racial hierarchy, in which Poles, Serbs, Romani, and persons of color were considered to be non-Aryan subhumans. In this hierarchy, the Jews occupied the bottom, being considered “inhuman,” rather than subhuman, which accounts for their horrific treatment, and animal-like slaughter.

The atrocities committed as a result of Hitler’s actions in Nazi Germany began as an attempt at ethnic cleansing, before the term had really been coined. People not considered to be of the Aryan race were segregated, then forced out of their homes, and across the borders. With the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws (“Law for Protection of German Blood and Honor“), the Jews were prohibited from joining the armed forces, and anti-semitic propaganda began appearing in public places. Jews were then banned from holding any professional jobs, which kept them out of the nation’s politics, education, and industry.

The law made sexual relations and marriage between Germans and Jews illegal; though later, the law was extended to include “Gypsies, Negroes and their bastard offspring.” All people who weren’t of pure German blood were stripped of their citizenship, and denied their basic human rights. Taking away the people’s citizenship gave pseudo-legitimacy to the persecution and ethnic cleansing. People considered to be not “racially viable” were finally forced out and, in a final, fanatical move, those considered inhuman, namely the Jews, were slated for genocidal slaughter.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Anti-Semitic – An attitude of discrimination, hostility, or prejudice against Jews.
  • Deportation – The lawful expulsion of a foreigner from a country.
  • Ethnic – Pertaining to, or characteristic of, a people, especially a group that shares a common and distinctive culture, language, religion, or the like.
  • Ideology – A system of concepts about human life and culture, beliefs, or theories shared by a people.
  • Refugee – A person who has fled his home country to another, for refuge or safety, usually in time of war or political upheaval.