Ethnic cleansing describes the systemic attempt by one group to make a region or country ethnically homogenous, or at least free of some ethnic component, by any means possible, though not necessarily murder. The term is often used synonymously with the term "genocide," but many in international law contest that parallelism based on established international conventions as well as the plain meanings of the terms.
The use of the term is contentious and sensitive. Ethnic cleansing is defined in by the United Nations in reference to use of force or intimidation to drive out people of a specific ethnic origin from a given area. Some have placed it on a continuum between policies that encourage emigration by one group and on the extreme end policies of genocide. The Genocide Convention specifies the use of murder in the policy of ethnic targeting in order for it to be considered genocide, something which would preclude many ethnic cleansing policies.
The term became conventional in the wake of Serbian assaults on ethnic Bosnians during the Bosnian War in the former Yugoslavia, though it has since been applied to a number of other conflicts. The initial campaigns of the Bosnian war in 1992 brought the conflict to international attention, as the Croats applied ethnic cleansing policies against the Muslim Bosnians. A number of massacres in 1994 and 1995 justified the continued involvement of NATO air strikes in both enforcing a no fly zone and grounding the Serbian air force. United Nations peacekeepers on the ground failed dramatically to police the situation beforehand. A massive occupation force enforcing the end of the war brought 60,000 troops to the area. These events represent a precedent within the discourse about military force to prevent mass ethnic cleansing.
The failure to police the Rwandan conflict before the 1994 genocide there also has contributed to the debate. Tony Waters points to Rwanda as a pivotal moment in the collective formation of the discourse on ethnic conflict and conflict intervention. Drawing on personal accounts of UN peacekeeping commander Roméo Dallaire, he exposes the uncomfortable hesitation on the part of U.S. President Bill Clinton and former, at the time Assistant, Secretary General Kofi Annan to authorize force or reinforce the troops already on the ground there as tension built up and spilled over. Both figures later acknowledged either personal or organizational failings, but that solace has not been considered a translation into practical action for the future. Rwanda has, however, become an advocate on issues of human rights abuse and has volunteered peacekeeping troops in other theaters, particularly Darfur, Sudan.
The usage of the term has become racially charged, with some critics stating that the labeling of "ethnic cleansing" and its sudden preponderance in regard to the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia coincided with a virtual neglect of the conflict in Rwanda. Julianne Malveaux has written a scathing comparison with tendencies in the United States that isolate African Americans, which she implies would be considered ethnic cleansing to outside observers from other countries. The term has also been applied retroactively to several 20th-century conflicts, often contentiously.
Scholars of the Arab-Israeli in mainstream scholarship have acknowledged an Arab intent to commit ethnic cleansing from the former British Mandate for Palestine against the Jewish population. Increasingly, a minority of historians have revised the conflict's history and recognized the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1947-1949 to have been born out of Israeli policies to ethnically cleanse the area. Many Israelis contend with this, though some go so far as to justify the perceived ethnic cleansing policy, such as the historian Benny Morris. Israelis themselves have sometimes split with the Jewish community around the world regarding issues of ethnic violence, constantly fearing being portrayed a perpetrator bearing the military advantage. During the Kosovo intervention, the American and Israeli Jewish communities split over support for NATO intervention.
The Arab World has been the scene of violent ethnic conflict since the early 20th century. With the advent of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from their homes in Arab countries or had their property confiscated as they fled. In Iraq, over 100,000 left between 1948 and 1953. Iraq was also a major scene for ethnic violence in the 2000s, serving as the epicenter of visceral clashes between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim World (including also in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan). There have been other conflicts whose ethnic components have been forgotten or ignored.
The Arab Spring of 2011 sparked violent ethnic clashes in a number of countries, though most portrayals of the clashes have been framed as political. The NATO intervention in Libya was at first thought to be in a general uprising against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Experts eventually changed public discourse to remind lay observers that tribal alliances divided the country into regions, creating a war with ethnic implications. A number of minorities as well, including Berbers, have joined the rebellion in reaction to decades of cultural repression. In Syria, the minority Alawites are said to dominate the armed forces, inviting accusations they are deliberately targeting Sunni Muslims in street demonstrations.