Saturday, February 19, 2011

Permissible Ethnic Cleansing?

James Nickel's essay on treads largely uncotroversial ground in its examination of the moral pitfalls of ethnic cleansing, but perhaps his somewhat guarded explanation of the grounds for permissible instances of ethnic cleansing offers a more interesting field for discussion. Nickel provides a series of criteria for evauluating such instances and suggests that certain forms might be "morally tolerable as a way of dealing with severely deteriorated situations".

In truth, Nickel (probably due to the senstive political context of the Bosnian War at the time of publication) probably gives short shrift to the effect of forcible population transfers in favor of political stability. The single largest such transfer occurred after the Second World War, as (among others) millions of Germans were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe and driven destitute into Germany proper. This was undoubtedly a brutal process, but it was essentially endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt as an expedient to stable postwar political boundaries (Hitler, after all, had used the plight of the Sudeten Germans as a pretext for his annexation of Czechoslovakia). Indeed, the remarkably peacable state of modern Europe can be explained in large part by the relatively homogenous character of most of its nation states. By contrast, it's cliche to note the arbitrary, trans-ethnic borders of postcolonial Africa are responsible for much of the political instability there.

To highlight a more specific example, a Mideast peace settlement leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state (should that ever occur) would almost certainly require forcible population transfer from some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as already occurred in the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Given that this policy is essentially what most of the international community is demanding, it calls into question the moral objection to population transfer per se, rather than merely its nastier manifestations.


  1. Well let us look at another large migration of people - the Partition of India. In 1947 as India finally gained independence from Great Britain, it further separated into two halves, the Pakistan the Muslim one and India the Hindu one. The British was unwilling to hold on to these territories till they could come to some kind of peaceful agreement and over 14 million people were displaced. Often times families left because their religion singled them out as an unwanted population. Some were forced out, but others left under the hope that a purely Islamic or Hindu nation would be more prosperous or that they would no be discriminated against. The ensuing rioting, migration and infighting killed any where between 200,000 and one million people. While it was the British are to blame for the colonial conundrum, it was also the native leaders of these new countries.

    Still, population transfers can be morally suspect in some cases, perhaps Sri Lanka, when the Tamils were rounded up in concentration camps, only to now after the war is over, to spread the population out over the whole island in an effort to minimize the Tamil presence and sense of community.

  2. I think that there’s something to be said for having ethnic diversity within a nation state. While it may seem like a good idea to kick people out of your country when they disagree with you, this can lead to some dangerous ethnocentric ideas. Just because no one is telling you that you’re wrong does not make you right. A plurality of political voices is an extremely important part of any democracy. Disagreement ensures discourse on issues that would otherwise get over looked.

  3. Nickel makes some interesting points, and his position is particularly powerful when considered in the context of the potential for a modern Palestinian state, as suggested by Patrick. I do, however, agree that Nickel did little to convince me that ethnocide can ever be acceptable. Although I understand that the merits of staunchly preserving minority cultures at all costs are not necessarily as beneficial as one might think, I still can't conceive of an instance when the "cleansing" of a minority culture, particularly if it were intentional and imposed by the majority institutions, would not be considered a grievous violation of that people's rights.

  4. To echo Sarah and Ben, I also agree that the mild form of ethnic cleansing that Nickel proposes is a scary thought. In the case of preventing future conflict, if all other interventions have been exhausted and the only way to ensure the safety of innocent people is to support a mass population transfer, then I would be convinced that it is the best solution. However, I would be hesitant to call that kind of relocation a form of "ethnic cleansing." The word 'cleansing' suggests a more permanent erasure and a form of improvement that sounds awfully troubling when dealing with people. If a population relocation is warranted, then, ideally, I think it should be considered a temporary fix to allow for stability to be reached. The end goal, in my opinion, should be to restore peace so that the displaced group has the potential to return home.


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