Ethnic cleansing is the violent displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory in order to create an ethnically “clean” unit, i.e. a territorial unit composed of only one ethnic group. The means used to achieve ethnic unity are:
- direct military force
- police brutality
- the threat of force
- demolition of housing, places of worship, infrastructure
- discriminatory legislation or policies
- tribal politics
- economic exclusion
- hate speech, propaganda
- rewriting of history, fabrication of historical resentment
- a combination of the above.
Given these various “tools”, it is not correct to equate ethnic cleansing with genocide. There are more or less violent forms of ethnic cleansing, although all forms contain some kind of force, otherwise one would speak merely of voluntary migration. Deportation or displacement of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group.
Given the element of force it is correct to denounce all forms of ethnic cleansing, not only on the grounds of some kind of ideal of multiculturalism, but also on the grounds of the self-determination of the people involved, of their right to settle where they want, their freedom of movement etc. It is defined as a crime against humanity.
The best known cases of ethnic cleansing are:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s
- Iraq during the Iraq war
- India and Pakistan during their partition
- The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict
- Rwanda during the genocide
- The relocation of Native American peoples from their traditional areas
- The forced removals of non-white populations during the apartheid era
- The Palestinian exodus
- Central and Eastern Europe during and immediately after World War II
However, it seems that this tactic has been known to humanity since a long time. Some even believe that the Neanderthals were victims of ethnic cleansing.
Some of the justifications given in defense of ethnic cleansing are:
- To remove the conditions for potential and actual opposition. According to Mao Zedong, guerrillas among a civilian population are fish in water. By draining the water, one disables the fish.
- To create a separate state for one ethnic group. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because one assumes that in such a state it is inevitable that some groups are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting-pot world with no clear territorial separation of groups within states, is the use of force.
- To redeem a society that is literally “unclean” and “sick” because of the presence of inferior humans.