What is ‘ethnic cleansing’ and where has it occurred?

Here are some of the most notorious cases of alleged ethnic cleansing since World War II.

Armenia has warned of “ethnic cleansing” by Azerbaijan in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

What is ethnic cleansing?

The expression was born during the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

A United Nations Commission of Experts on atrocities in the former Yugoslavia defined ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

They said the methods used could include murder, torture, arbitrary detention, rape, deportation and deliberate attacks on civilian areas, which could fall under the category of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

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Ethnic cleansing is sometimes confused with genocide.

Genocide is the attempt to destroy a particular group based on its nationality, ethnicity, race or religion.

Ethnic cleansing, on the other hand, usually refers to the removal of particular groups from a particular territory.

What does international law say?

Ethnic cleansing is not recognised as an independent crime under international law and there is no internationally-accepted definition of it.

It is not mentioned in the 1998 treaty that established the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which hears cases involving the most serious crimes known to man — war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression.

However, several UN Security Council resolutions refer to ethnic cleansing, starting with resolution 771 from August 1992 on the Bosnian war.

Where has ethnic cleansing previously taken place?

Here are some of the most notorious cases of alleged ethnic cleansing since World War II:

— Serbian leaders were accused of ethnic cleansing aimed at creating a “Greater Serbia” in the Balkans wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

More than a million ethnic non-Serbs were driven from their homes in Bosnia in that country’s 1992-1995 war.

Bosnian Croat forces and Croatia’s regular army were also accused of ethnic cleansing, in the Bosnian war and 1991-1995 Croatian war respectively.

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— In the western Sudanese region of Darfur, the brutal Arab “janjaweed” militias that were unleashed by president Omar al-Bashir’s government to crush a rebellion in 2003 were accused of ethnic cleansing.

The United Nations estimated 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced in the conflict marked by rapes, killings, looting and the burning of villages.

— In 2017, Myanmar was accused of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state after a military crackdown sparked a mass exodus of the Muslim minority, who reported murder, rape and arson by soldiers and mobs.

What’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of carrying out ethnic cleansing in the breakaway region of mostly ethnic Armenians since it fell to Azerbaijani forces last week, allegations denied by Baku, which says it wants to reintegrate them into Azerbaijan as equal citizens.

With access to the region heavily restricted, journalists have been relying mainly on the stories of refugees fleeing across the border into Armenia to try to establish whether they are being driven out or left of their own accord.

Several people interviewed by AFP said they were told to leave by Nagorno-Karabakh’s own separatist authorities before Azerbaijani forces reached their towns or villages.

Others said they could not imagine living under the authority of Azerbaijanis.

Bayram Balci, a specialist on the Caucasus and Central Asia at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP he believed many of the refugees had left because of the bad blood between Azerbaijanis and Armenians after two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Azerbaijanis were the big losers of the first war in the early 1990s, which left around 30,000 people dead and forced ethnic Azerbaijanis to flee Karabakh and Armenia while ethnic Armenians fled in the opposite direction.

While the Azerbaijanis took back some lost ground in a second war in 2020, many Armenians are convinced that they are still seeking revenge for their earlier defeat.

Their views on Azerbaijanis are also tinged by the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915-17, which some countries have recognised as genocide.

The massacres, which Turkey denies amounted to genocide, created deep distrust among Armenians of Azerbaijanis, most of whom are fellow Turkic people whom Armenians refer to as “Turks”.

“Given the tumultuous, tragic history between the two populations, Armenians will never trust an Azerbaijani administration,” Balci said.

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