Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995 – part two

TransConflict is pleased to present part two of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995”, which “aims at describing causes, features, and consequences of ethnic cleansing as a policy in Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war.”

Suggested Reading

Conflict Background


By Marie-Janine Calic

I. The Term Ethnic Cleansing

The term ethnic cleansing entered the vocabulary of international relations during the early phases of the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, describing a set of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations.[7] Although there is widespread use of this term, both its origin and exact meaning are unclear.[8] Ethnic cleansing is a literal translation of the Serbo-Croatian/Croato-Serbian idiom etničko čišćenje, čist meaning “clean” or “without any contamination.” Petrović assumes that it originates from military vocabulary because there is an expression “to clean the territory” of the enemy, which is “used mostly in the final phase of combat in order to take total control of the conquered territory.”[9] The adjective ethnic may have been added because the enemies were considered to belong to separate ethnic communities. Although the term ethnic cleansing has become common during the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, there is some evidence that it may date back to World War II and, perhaps, even earlier.[10]

Historical Background

Ethnic cleansing as a practice has occurred throughout history in various regional contexts and has assumed many forms, including forced migration, population exchange, deportation, expulsion, and genocide.[11] Following the creation of the modern Balkan states (starting with the Serbian uprisings of 1804–1813 and 1815 and the Greek War of Independence of 1821–1829) up to 1920, an estimated 5 to 10 million people, mostly Muslims, were expelled from their home territory, and up to 1.5 million were killed.[12] During the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, when Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Greece, and Romania fought for the remaining areas of Ottoman control in the southern Balkans, this region saw massive ethnic cleansing operations and unspeakable atrocities in general.[13]

During World War II, large-scale operations occurred in various parts of then dismembered Yugoslavia. In the so-called Independent State of Croatia, the fascist Ustasha adopted racist policies against Serbs, Roma, and Jews, including expulsion, detention, extermination, and enforced conversion of non-Croat communities. On the Serb side, the nationalist Chetnik movement was striving for the creation of a Greater Serbia that would include territories of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia and believed that desired territories had to be cleansed of non-Serb populations. In both cases the aim of ethnic homogenization was directly linked with the creation of nation states.[14]

Rough estimates assume that up to five million people of different ethnic, national, and religious origin were displaced during and after the wars of succession in the 1990s throughout the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Between 1992 and 1995, over half the 4.4 million inhabitants of Bosnia-Hercegovina were internally displaced or became refugees in neighboring countries. Against this background, events in the 1990s appear as a “third wave” of massive ethnic cleansing during state formation.[15]

In either case, such a policy was of a long-term nature because it aimed at creating conditions that would make it impossible for the expelled to return to their places of origin and its ultimate goal was to achieve ethnic homogeneity and exclusivity. The purpose of such a policy of ethnic homogenization may, nevertheless, have varied in different contexts:

  • In a collapsing state ethnic cleansing often appears as the side effect of military conflagration over succession in an ethnically mixed setting. As long as the ethnically distinct population is identified with the enemy, or at least as a potential source of resistance, it appears logical to remove such population from strategic areas in order to establish effective control over that territory. The more homogeneous a region, the more easily power can be exerted. In this sense, ethnic cleansing appeared, in Clausewitz’s terms, as a rational means to a specific end.
  • Ethnic cleansing may occur as a more general policy when ethnic communities are identified with territories and the main aim is to establish a coincidence between borders and nations. In areas with mixed populations, the irreversible change of the demographic composition is instrumental in justifying territorial aspirations. It may also help to assure a certain bargaining position in ensuing political negotiations aiming at ethnic partition.
  • Under certain circumstances, the aim might have been the physical extermination of an ethnic or religious group, including the elimination of all cultural traces of their presence. In this case, ethnic cleansing may be interpreted as genocide (further elaboration below).[16]

‘Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995′ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


7) See the Periodic Reports on the Situation of Human Rights in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Submitted by Mr Tadeusz Mazowiecki, special rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, to the UN Security Council and the General Assembly,, accessed 10 October 2008.

8) Dražen Petrović, “Ethnic Cleansing: An Attempt at Methodology,” European Journal of International Law 5, no. 3 (1994): 1–19.

9) Ibid., 2.

10) Noel Malcolm mentions that the term čišćenje was used in 1942 by Stevan Moljević, an advisor to Četnik-leader Draža Mihailović, who advocated a Greater Serbia from which undesirable elements such as Muslims and Albanians would have to be “cleansed.” Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (London: Macmillan, 1998), 298.

11) Andrew Bell-Fialkoff, “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing,” in Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 110–21, and Bell-Fialkoff, Ethnic Cleansing.

12) Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821–1922 (Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1995).

13) Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars (Washington, DC: The Endowment, 1914); reprint under the title The Other Balkan Wars (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1993); Dimitrije Djordjević, “Migrations during the 1912–1913 Balkan Wars and World War I,” in Migrations in Balkan History, ed. Ivan Ninić (Belgrade: Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Institute for Balkan Studies, 1989), 115–29.

14) Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

15) Robert M. Hayden, “Schindler’s Fate: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Population Transfers,” in Slavic Review 55, no. 4 (1996): 728–48.

16) Naimark, Fires of Hatred, 3.

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