A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing

REVISITING THE SINS OF ANTIQUITY

The Serbian campaign to "cleanse" a territory of another ethnic group, while gruesome and tragic, is historically speaking neither new nor remarkable. Population removal and transfer have occurred in history more often than is generally acknowledged. The central aim of the Serbian campaign-to eliminate a population from the "homeland" in order to create a more secure, ethnically homogeneous state-is in some ways as old as antiquity. Moreover, despite greater international attention and condemnation, such campaigns have only intensified in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Despite its recurrence, ethnic cleansing nonetheless defies easy definition. At one end it is virtually indistinguishable from forced emigration and population exchange while at the other it merges with deportation and genocide. At the most general level, however, ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an "undesirable" population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.

Under this definition, then, the slow dispersal and annihilation of North America's indigenous population was indeed ethnic cleansing. In their efforts to gain and secure the frontier, American settlers "cleansed" most Indians from their lands, even though the process was slow and, until the nineteenth century, carried out mainly under private initiative. On the other hand, the removal of thousands of Africans from their home continent, however harsh and despite the fact that it denuded many regions of their original inhabitants, would not be considered ethnic cleansing. The aim was to import a desired slave population, not to expel any particular group.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis