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Ethnic Cleansing as an Instrument of Nation-State Creation: Changing State Practices and Evolving Legal Norms
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Ethnic Cleansing as an Instrument of Nation-State Creation:
Changing State Practices and Evolving Legal Norms

[The establishment of a legal precedent for ethnic cleansing] is a thoroughly bad and vicious solution [to the problem of national minorities] for which the world will pay a heavy penalty for a hundred years to come.

Lord Curzon
British Foreign Minister, 1923 1

It could not have been predicted when the first Sub-Commission [on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities] resolution on population transfer [or ethnic cleansing] was adopted in 1990 that this form of human rights abuse would become so central to conflicts and pressing political issues of which the international community is now seized.

A.S. Al-Khasawneh and R. Hatano
UN Special Rapporteurs, 1993 2

I. Introduction

In the early 1990s a new term entered the language of politics: ethnic cleansing. By 1997 that term was commonplace. It appeared regularly not only in media reports but also in the pronouncements of those international [End Page 817] and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with various ethnic conflicts around the globe—be they in the Balkans (Bosnia and Croatia), the Caucasus (Armenia and Azerbaijan), Africa (Somalia and Rwanda) or Asia (Cambodia). Seemingly, ethnic cleansing was a phenomenon of the post-Cold War era: that, at least, was the impression that one received from most writing on the subject—which as of 1997 remained primarily journalistic.

This impression, however, was misleading. In fact, forcibly moving populations defined by ethnicity (race, language, religion, culture, etc.) to secure a particular piece of territory—thereby cleansing that territory of a particular group—has been an instrument of nation-state creation for as long as homogeneous nation-states have been the ideal form of political organization. 3 Since Woodrow Wilson first hailed national self-determination as the organizing principle of the 1919 territorial settlement, 4 ethnic cleansing has affected millions of people around the world. 5 The following are but a few European examples: in the interwar period, 1.5 million Greeks were cleansed from Turkey, 6 400,000 Turks cleansed from Greece, 7 between 92,000 and 102,000 Bulgarians cleansed from Greece, 8 35,000 Greeks cleansed from Bulgaria, 9 67,000 Turks cleansed from Bulgaria 10 ; during World War II and its aftermath, 110,000 Romanians cleansed from Bulgaria, 11 62,000 Bulgarians cleansed from Romania, 12 1.2 million Poles [End Page 818] cleansed from areas incorporated by the German Reich, 13 700,000 Germans cleansed from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Italy and relocated into the Nazi Incorporated Territories of Western Poland, 14 6 million Jews cleansed from Nazi-occupied Europe and eventually exterminated, 15 600,000 Soviet citizens belonging to politically suspect ethnic groups (e.g., Chechens, Tatars, Pontic Greeks) cleansed from their historic homelands on Stalin’s orders and relocated beyond the Urals, 16 14 million Germans cleansed from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania, 17 140,000 Italians cleansed from Yugoslavia, 18 31,000 Hungarians cleansed from Czechoslovakia, 19 33,000 Slovaks cleansed from Hungary; 20 since 1948, 45,000 Turkish Cypriots cleansed from Greek Cyprus, 21 160,000 Greek Cypriots cleansed from Turkish Cyprus, 22 more than 300,000 ethnic Turks cleansed from Bulgaria, 23 2.5 million people displaced as a result of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, many of whom were the victims of ethnic cleansing. 24 It should be emphasized that this list is not exhaustive.

Indeed, in the twentieth century so widespread was the practice of ethnic cleansing or forced population transfer (which is the older expression used to describe those practices associated with ethnic cleansing) and so far-reaching were its consequences that UN Special Rapporteurs A.S. Al-Khasawneh and R. Hatano in their 1993 report The Human Rights Dimensions of Population Transfer offered the following observation: “As much as population transfer has prevailed as an instrument of State-craft in every age in recorded history, ours could be distinguished as the century of the displaced person.” 25

Clearly, ethnic cleansing or forced population transfer is a subject that merits careful academic scrutiny. By the late 1990s there were still too few analyses of the...