The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Ethnic Cleansing

The practice of “ethnic cleansing,” used most notably in the former Yugoslavia, aims to artificially create geographic zones (usually using violent methods) in which the population is composed exclusively of persons of the same nationality or ethnicity. Such policies violate the rules of legitimate governance as foreseen and accepted by the international community.

States have adopted resolutions, decisions, and conventions prohibiting racial or any other form of discrimination. The UN on this rationale imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions in protest against the policies of apartheid carried out by the South African government. Individuals who perpetrated acts of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia can be prosecuted by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which was set up in 1993 and has jurisdiction over ethnic cleansing and other grave violations of the laws of war, crimes against humanity, and genocide that were committed in the former Yugoslavia since 1 January 1991. Such practices amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity in the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

In times of conflict, the acts of violence that make up the practice of ethnic cleansing are war crimes. For instance, international humanitarian law prohibits

  • methods of warfare whose primary purpose is to spread terror among the civilian population and
  • forced displacement of populations and deportation.

Perpetrators of such acts are subject to the penal sanctions foreseen by humanitarian law.

The Statute of the International Criminal Court, which was adopted in July 1998 and entered into force on 1 July 2002, provides precise definitions of crimes against humanity and war crimes. These include the main elements that make up the practice of ethnic cleansing, such as widespread and systematic killings, disappearances, population transfers, rape, persecution, and other similarly inhumane acts. Following certain preconditions, the ICC may judge the authors of such crimes, whether during international or internal armed conflicts, or in times of peace in the case of crimes against humanity.

ApartheidDiscriminationGenocideInternational Criminal CourtInternational Criminal TribunalsMethods (and means) of warfarePersecutionPopulation displacementWarWar crimes/Crimes against humanity

For Additional Information: Hassner, Pierre. Violence and Peace: From the Atomic Bomb to Ethnic Cleansing . Budapest: Central European University Press, 1997.

Naimark, Norman M. “Ethnic Cleansing.” In Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity , edited by Dinah Shelton, 301–4. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2004.

Quigley, John. “State Responsibility for Ethnic Cleansing.” UC Davis Law Review 32 (1999): 341–85.

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