Ethnic cleansing has not been recognized as an independent crime under international law. The term surfaced in the context of the 1990’s conflict in the former Yugoslavia and is considered to come from a literal translation of the Serbo-Croatian expression “etničko čišćenje”. However, the precise roots of the term or who started using it and why are still uncertain.
The expression “ethnic cleansing” has been used in resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly, and has been acknowledged in judgments and indictments of the ICTY, although it did not constitute one of the counts for prosecution. A definition was never provided.
As ethnic cleansing has not been recognized as an independent crime under international law, there is no precise definition of this concept or the exact acts to be qualified as ethnic cleansing. A United Nations Commission of Experts mandated to look into violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia defined ethnic cleansing in its interim report S/25274 as "… rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area." In its final report S/1994/674, the same Commission described ethnic cleansing as “… a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”
The Commission of Experts also stated that the coercive practices used to remove the civilian population can include: murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, severe physical injury to civilians, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, use of civilians as human shields, destruction of property, robbery of personal property, attacks on hospitals, medical personnel, and locations with the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem, among others.
The Commission of Experts added that these practices can “… constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention.”