The Serbs in Kosovo were probably the first to use the term “ethnic cleansing” in its contemporary meaning during the 1980s. They alleged that the Kosovar Albanians sought to drive them from their ancient homeland in a campaign of violence and terror. As an internationally accepted concept, “ethnic cleansing” came into the common lexicon of terms for social violence during the war in Bosnia in the spring and summer of 1992. Journalists, human rights activists, and Western politicians used the term to characterize attacks on Bosnian Muslims by Serbs. The idea of ethnic cleansing was to drive the Muslims out of targeted Bosnian territory claimed by the Serbs. Eventually, the term was also applied to similar attacks by Croats against Bosnian Muslims. Retroactively, it was used to describe the attacks of Serbs and Croats against each other during the war of the summer and fall of 1991 (Naimark, 2001:2).
In winter and spring of 1999-2000, the term ethnic cleansing was widely used to analyze the attacks of Serbs against Kosovar Albanians. While Serbs defended their actions as counter-insurgency campaigns against the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), the violence was characterized by the international community as ethnic cleansing (Power, 2002:468). The subsequent refugee crisis in the spring of 1999 threatened to destabilize Macedonia and the entire region. NATO intervention was justified as an attempt to intercede in a case of ethnic cleansing. Despite the bombing of Serbian targets in Kosovo and Serbia proper, the Serbs continued to attack Kosovar Albanians and drive them from their homes. From the perspective of international law, the intervention was clearly illegal; a sovereign country was attacked and bombed without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. The powerful negative resonance of ethnic cleansing, both as a concept and in reality, overcame the political hesitations and legal obstacles to intervention. NATO’s active role in Macedonia in 2000-2001 was prompted by the desire to preempt ethnic cleansing. On the whole, NATO’s involvement, bolstered by the interest of the European Union, was successful. International control of Kosovo has not been able to prevent a form of “reverse ethnic cleansing.” To this day (fall 2006), the Serbs continue to complain of attempts by Kosovar Albanians to drive them from their homes and villages.
Beyond the Balkans, ethnic cleansing has been carried out against minority peoples in Indonesia and the Caucasus. Recent Russian attempts to expel Georgians from Moscow have been classified as the preliminaries to ethnic cleansing. The case of Darfur in Sudan represents a particularly deadly case of ethnic cleansing in contemporary world politics. The Janjaweed Arab militias, with the secret backing of Khartoum, commit horrendous crimes against black Africans, also Muslims, whom they identify as “slaves.” The militias engage in killing and mass rape, both to punish their victims and to terrorize them into fleeing their native territories. In refugee camps in Chad and western Darfur, members of the Fur and other native peoples of the region suffer and die in the tens of thousands from disease, exposure, and malnutrition. Forces of the African Union have been deployed to try to control the situation. U.N. attempts to introduce NATO troops into Darfur have run up against the objections of the government of Sudan.
From the outset of the war in the former Yugoslavia, some analysts and human rights activists challenged (and continue to challenge) the validity of the term ethnic cleansing as a euphemism for genocide. But the term continues to be applied in useful ways to distinguish this “crime against humanity” and “war crime” from genocide, “the crime of crimes.” The definition of genocide, codified in the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948, and upheld in the International Courts formed for the purposes of trying criminals from the wars in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, focuses on the intentional murder of part or all of a particular ethnic, religious, or national group (Schabas, 2000:ch.2). The purpose of ethnic cleansing is the forced removal of a population from a designated piece of territory. Although campaigns of ethnic cleansing can lead to genocide or have genocidal effects, they constitute a fundamentally different kind of criminal action against an ethnic, religious, or national group. The transcripts of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) frequently mention ethnic cleansing, but subsume it under the category of forced deportation, a crime against humanity that was widespread particularly in Bosnia. The courts have not clearly established ethnic cleansing as a category of criminal offense, leaving room for ambiguity about its precise judicial meaning.