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ethno cultural community expulsion

Cultural diversity within the same state or society has often led to problems of accommodation in sharing space and designing an acceptable form of governance. With few exceptions, nearly all of the 187 countries of the world are polyethnic, with about 40 percent comprising five or more ethno-national communities. This proliferation of ethno-national groups within states has resulted in numerous internal struggles, which in turn have generated costly humanitarian crises and created millions of refugees. Among the more nefarious tactics for coping with ethnocultural diversity, apart from genocide and partition, has been the policy called “ethnic cleansing.” This peculiar practice involves a deliberate and often planned program of forcible removal and expulsion of an ethno-cultural community from its homeland and territory. The term itself is derived from the Serbian-Croatian phrase etnico ciscenje . It emerged in the early 1990s during the Bosnian-Yugoslav war, and it has since become generalized and popularized for any similar practice by any perpetrator, not only in relation to contemporary ethnic conflicts but for all structurally similar conflicts throughout history.

Episodes of ethnic cleansing have generally been marked by violence and egregious human rights violations and atrocities. The “cleansed” community is compelled to leave, usually on very short notice, and they are transported to inhospitable regions, with many dying along the way. The intent, however, is not to physically eliminate the community, as in genocide, but to remove it from a territory. The brutal methods employed, however, often border on the genocidal. The context of a security threat or war, either before or after the event, usually offers the cover for the cruel and callous mass removal of the victims to inhospitable or dangerous destinations. Often implicated as ethno-cultural factors are ethno-racial motives and patterns.


In ethnic cleansing, the target may be a group that is perceived as possessing a distinctive way of life, or it may simply be an ethnic or ethno-cultural community. Ethnicity can be defined as a collective group consciousness that imparts a sense of belonging and is derived from membership in a community putatively bound by common descent and culture. The ethnic group is thus a cultural community, an intimately interactive society of shared symbols and meanings, and, as Walker Connor notes, it is “the largest group that can be aroused, stimulated to action, by appeals to common ancestors and to a blood-bond” (Connor 2004, p.23). Generally, ethno-cultural communities in polyethnic states tend to stake their claims to a distinctive identity by attributing to themselves in their narratives of origin not only cultural and historical differences, but also racial myths of superiority over rival groups.

The term race , as used here, refers to socially constructed categories assigned to putative physical and biological human differences, which tend to establish structures of inequality and political hegemony (UNESCO 1951). In many cases, racial claims in the construction of cultural identities tend to be quite explicit, as in apartheid in South Africa. In many other cases, however, the racial aspect is less evident and intermixed with other factors. It is also frequently denied altogether. Some communities that are deemed “ethno-racial” are actually recent inventions, as in the case of Rwanda. In the nineteenth century, colonial conquest, accompanied by European theories of scientific racism, led to the creation of many “racial” categories among colonial peoples.


Many economic, strategic, religious, and other justifications have been advanced by perpetrators of ethnic cleansing. Outright racial reasons have also been used. Under the apartheid system in South Africa, for example, this involved the uprooting of African peoples and the setting up of segregated residential townships and “homelands.” In nineteenth-century Europe, the development of so-called scientific theories of racial differentiation and hierarchy served to justify the forcible displacement and expulsion of indigenous and colonized Third World peoples from their homelands. In 1797 the British expelled the indigenous Caribs from St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean because they offered sanctuary to escaped slaves. The people of St. Vincent were removed to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. The larger context for this action was a concept of racial categorization in which a militarily superior European group could displace a black community deemed to be inferior.

Similar racial categorizations allowed the indigenous peoples of North America to be pushed into the interior hinterland and finally consigned to reservations. While mainly executed under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, there were numerous cases of Native Americans being forcibly uprooted and relocated. The practice of expelling native peoples from their land to peripheral areas was also enacted in conjunction with the establishment of white settler colonies in Africa, South America, and Australia. In Tasmania, systematic displacement eventually led to the virtual liquidization of an entire aboriginal community.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing, ranging from internal psychological drives to materialistic and rationalistic economic propositions. Perhaps the best known of these theories focuses on the idea of “ancient hatreds” to account for the periodic resurgence of ethnic strife in certain regions, such as the Balkans. Ethnic cleansing is thus linked to deeply embedded animosities. Implicit in this explanation is the idea of descent, or blood, suggesting an inherent feature inscribed in the rituals, historical narratives, and cultural symbolism of these communities, and implying a natural and recurrent trajectory of revenge and retaliation. Yet in an empirical investigation on the recurrence of ethnic cleansing worldwide, John Fearon and David Laitin found that in sub-Saharan Africa, where all states are multiethnic, “there are only a few cases of murderous ethnic cleansing” (Fearon and Laitin 1996, p. 21).


Another notable explanation of ethnic cleansing identifies nationalism as the key factor. In this proposition, the idea of “territory” has become connected with the cultural and linguistic uniformity of the state. Nationalism thereby becomes a homogenizing element, with national identity as the acid test of belonging. Each of the major European states, although populated by several minorities, has a dominant ethnic core so that the imperatives of nationalism, in sanctioning the demand of each ethno-cultural people for its own state, create a justification for mass expulsion, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. Hence, since the inception of the nation-state, there have been waves of ethno-nationalist movements accompanied by mass expulsions and ethnic cleansing.

After World War I, with the dissolution of the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, the principle of ethno-national self-determination guided the creation of several new states that required the transfer of several minority groups. Under the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, compulsory population transfers between Greece and Turkey occurred, involving 1.5 million Greeks and 400,000 Turks. Under the Neuilly Treaty of 1919, some 100,000 Bulgarians and 35,000 Greeks were exchanged between Greece and Bulgaria. Under the Potsdam Protocol of 1945, German minorities in certain European nations were forced to migrate back to German soil. This movement of some 12 to 16 million persons expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia remains the largest mass expulsion in history. Finally, after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, some three million persons were displaced as Croats, Serbs, and Muslims took turns—each often using mutually dehumanizing racio-cultural slurs and categories—cleansing claimed territory of their communal adversaries. It was from these campaigns of terror and inhumane brutality that the Croat-Serbian term ethnic cleansing was coined.

In implicating the state as a main culprit of violence against minorities, especially through ethnic cleansing, not only have nationalism and industrial technology been implicated, but so has the principle of democracy. According to this view, majoritarian democracy, combined with the statist ideology of nationalism, offers a potent justification for the expulsion and repression of minorities. Michael Mann has argued that in the making of contemporary liberal democratic states in the West, especially settler democracies like the United States, “murderous ethnic cleansing” was pervasive. “The countries inhabited by Europeans are now safely democratic, but most have been ethnically cleansed” (Mann 2005, pp. 4–5).


Many theorists of ethnic cleansing have singled out the ethno-religious factor as paramount. Andrew Bell-Fialkoff argues that in ancient times religious diversity and tolerance were the norm, and that population cleansing was mainly motivated by economic gain and political power. Following this period, with the emergence of Christianity and Islam as universalizing faiths linked to the state and the territory of empires, religion became politicized and the main marker Page 438  of identity and belonging. As a result, religious fervor and intolerance became widespread, compelling conversion, expulsion, and even massacres. Hence, the First Crusade (1096–1099) left wide swaths of territory cleansed of Muslims and Jews. The expulsion of Jews from various parts of Europe, including expulsions from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, is a well-known example of ethno-religious cleansing. After the Reconquista in Spain, expulsions of Muslims and Jews occurred from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries. When the Christian Church suffered its major schismatic division following the Reformation, religious wars between Catholic and Protestant forces, especially in France and Germany, led to numerous massacres and expulsions. Noteworthy is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in France in 1572, as well as the dispersal of French Protestants after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Other notable cases of European ethno-religious cleansing refer to the expulsion of the Catholic Irish from Ulster between 1609 and 1641, when their land was taken over by Scottish and English settlers. Religion also played a pivotal role in the Balkan Wars in the 1880s, when the pushing back of the borders of Ottoman Empire saw the wholesale expulsion of Muslims. In the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, widespread ethno-religious expulsion and exchanges occurred, including the large-scale movement of Armenians and Greeks from Anatolia and other areas. In the twentieth century, the partition of India to create two separate states, India and Pakistan, led to extensive ethnic cleansing as millions of Hindus and Muslims were removed from their old communities. Following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, the civil wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, and Croatia saw widespread ethnic cleansing with a religious motive. In Kosovo, both Albanians and Serbs took turns forcibly removing one another. In the twenty-first century, religious differences between Muslims and Christians have played a pivotal role in the murder and cleansing that has occurred in Darfur, Sudan. Hence, while the religious variable is rarely the sole motivator, it often offers a justification for economic and political greed.

Quite frequently, religion is combined with other factors to justify the mass expulsion of a group. For instance, religion and economic interests have featured in European colonization projects that included the displacement of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia, and Africa. These settlers saw the acquisition of the land of native peoples as divinely ordained, while it simultaneously served economic interests and provided land for settlement.


Economic motivations for ethnic cleansing, including the expropriation and looting of property of the victims, have accounted for the forcible displacement of ethno-cultural communities. Among the most frequent claims by perpetrators of ethnic cleansing is a demand for equity and rectification in the face of exploitation and unjust gain by the other group. In culturally plural societies, this proposition relates to the perception of comparative collective shares and benefits that the communal groups enjoy relative to each other. Any perceived incidence of inequality assumes a particularly piquant and penetrating quality that can awaken images and stereotypes of rival ethno-cultural communities in the same state. Many of the claims of an aggrieved community, which could be the majority ethno-cultural group against a relatively more prosperous minority group marked off by religion and culture, seem to be elucidated by this dynamic. Both the Chinese in Indonesia and the Asian Indians in Uganda were deemed economic exploiters and expelled. In part, the displacement of the Armenians and Greeks by the Turks after World War I was driven by jealousy because these groups were relatively more prosperous and industrious than the majority Muslim population.


Political and strategic explanations have often taken center stage in elucidating ethnic cleansing. Included in this category are security and power perspectives. Essentially, as a political act of power, ethnic cleansing incorporates multiple motives of a military and strategic nature, as well as political acquisition and consolidation, economic aggrandizement, land settlement, cultural domination, racial discrimination, greed, and jealousy. In the Ottoman Empire, which was ethnically diverse, Armenians and Greek communities located in frontier or strategically significant regions were removed. Stalin’s uprooting of the Chechen-Ingush peoples in the Caucasus during World War II was similarly motivated. Among the most prominent of the ingredients that enter into the calculus for territorial cleansing, apart from military-strategic interests, is the creation of a culturally homogenous state.

State creation that seeks congruence between territorial claims and cultural uniformity has already been discussed under the rubric of nationalism. Population transfers became part of the process of establishing more homogenous states with cruel expulsions and uprooting being part of the process, especially after the collapse of the Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Russian empires after World War I and with the defeat of the Axis powers after World War II. With the growth of industrial technology in the well-organized centralized states, ethnic cleansing became more complete and bordered on genocide. The twentieth century witnessed the worst cases of large-scale ethnic cleansing culminating in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed leaving some 25 million ethnic Russians living outside of Page 439  their homeland. Many of these Russians, though they had resided in these other countries of the Soviet Union for many years—even generations—were subject to overt and covert pressures by the liberated states such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and forced to leave. Likewise, when the Yugoslav state disintegrated there was a massive displacement of peoples. In the twenty-first century, ethnic cleansing continued in Darfur, Sudan, as well as in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shias expelled each other from their regions and neighborhoods.


Overall, several controversies and areas of ambiguity surround the use of the term ethnic cleansing . Are instances of the phenomenon always violent and swift? As a deliberate and planned policy of population transfer, can it not also be gradual and nonviolent? Among the nonviolent methods that can be applied, a state can deploy discriminatory policies and sanction unofficial abusive tactics to pressure an ethno-cultural community to migrate voluntarily. In Fiji, for example, after the military coup of 1987, the new regime—claiming to be guided by Christian principles— resorted to religiously discriminatory policies and terrorist tactics aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, the Asian Indian community, the members of which were mainly Hindus and Muslims. Over the course of a few years, with procedures simplified for their departure, Indians went from being the majority population in Fiji to being only 35 to 37 percent of the population.

Another question is whether the removal of an ethno-cultural community has to be officially planned and executed to qualify as ethnic cleansing. The use of terrorist tactics by thugs and paramilitaries can be condoned with impunity, for example, while a complicit governing regime denies any involvement.

In practice, it is not always clear that ethnic cleansing is a distinct category. It often seems to shade into other related practices, such as genocide and pressured migration. The term genocide was first coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Russian lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent. It is defined by the United Nations as a criminal act aimed at destroying, in whole or part, an ethnic, religious, or national group. What distinguishes it from ethnic cleansing is the intent of genocidal acts to exterminate a community rather than transport them to another area. Periodically, however, during the frenzy to uproot and remove an ethno-cultural community, as in the cases of the expulsion of Germans after World War II and the Armenians and Greeks during World War I in Turkey, methods may quickly degenerate from nonviolent pressure to open massacres suggestive of genocide. It thus seems to fit in a continuum of methods ranging from the most indirect and subtle, such as policies of multiculturalism and assimilation, to the most brutal, such as physical extermination. Likewise, the intent of the perpetrators can alternate between displacement and genocide. Given the wartime context and aura under which most programs of ethnic cleansing tend to occur, the role of old prejudices and the settling of scores can be concealed from view, as can greed for the easy acquisition of the property and wealth of the victims. Official strategic justifications can thus obscure the true intent of perpetrators.

Generally, the racial aspect of ethnic cleansing raises fundamental issues in the general scholarship pertaining to race, culture, and biology. The biological perspective, in which genetic heredity and phenotype are paramount, is often embedded in a culturalist idiom. This means that many of the ethno-cultural conflicts in which the expulsion of minorities occurs should be categorized as ethno-racial as well. All of this suggests that race, as an idiomatic expression of culture, is a much more pervasive feature of social relations and constitutes a silent subtext in many conflicts, including ethnic strife in the industrial countries of the West. In effect, in many ethnic conflicts that are not manifestly focused around racial categorization, the claims and identities created by ethnic groups have a subtext that includes a belief in some sort of common descent. In the contemporary international context of widespread media exposure it is difficult to conceal ethnic cleansing, but the true intent of perpetrators remains, such that many brutal acts of murder and mayhem seem to border on genocide. The case of Darfur in the Sudan is such an example.

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