Volume 1, Issue 1

“Ideological Cleansing”: Less Noticed than Ethnic Cleansing, But Just as Dangerous"
Richard O’Brien
Despite many historical examples where people of certain political leanings were systematically targeted for cleansing, there has to date been no official term for this pattern of politically motivated targeting. Introducing the phrase ideological cleansing, this article discusses historical examples and the need to recognize the phenomenon in evaluating present day human rights violations.
In the latter part of the Twentieth Century, the term ethnic cleansing emerged as a euphemism for racial policies of wholesale deportations and persecution of minorities in a few notable conflicts. Serbian violence on Bosnians and Kosovars, then Kosovar on Serbian violence were the best publicized of these occurrences in the 1990s. Ethnic cleansing and genocide have existed for thousands of years, but both only recently received names. The phenomenon of ideological cleansing been known since word of the Soviet purges began to filter out during the 1920s and 30s; it has also recently been given a name. Ideological cleansing is the forcible movement or transportation of a group of people based on their political beliefs.

Both instances of cleansing, ethnic and ideological, are usually accompanied by violence and often result in the partial or whole destruction of the group being moved. Historical examples of ethnic cleansing include distinct acts of genocide where the majority of the population perished. When the 1915 cleansing of Armenians in Eastern Turkey was finished, literally no Armenians existed where almost 3 million had lived since pre-biblical times. During the Jewish Holocaust, millions of Jews were forcibly removed from their German, Polish and other European cities to their ultimate death by firing squad or gas chamber.

Historical examples of ideological cleansing also include a wide range of crimes against humanity, with the Soviet Purges (1933-35), the Maoist Purges (1948-52?), Indonesia (1967), and Cambodia (1975-79) being a few of the more notable ones. While all of these cases of ideological cleansing would be considered crimes against humanity, none would be considered acts of genocide, proper, by the UN definition. While the exact same crime is being committed–a group of people is being targeted and killed-the ideological basis for that grouping in execution is not recognized by the UN 1948 Genocide Convention definition. The UN definition reads:
  Any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
Ideological groups are not considered a legal group under the current UN definition in large part due to the Soviet Union’s threat to veto during the 1948 Convention on Genocide. Recently, however, events in Cambodia have been universally acknowledged as genocide even though they do not fit the technical definition. This indicates an evolution in accepted standards and a willingness to legally recognize groups formed on the basis of ideology.

While ideological cleansing may have abated since the fall of the Soviet Union, its presence in a few hotspots around the world has been accompanied by massacres and crimes against humanity. Possible current instances of ideological cleansing include the Colombian AUC paramilitary and to a lesser degree the leftist FARC guerillas as both are ostensibly attempting to clear swaths of territory to make them loyal to their political leaning. A conservative estimate puts the number of people massacred in the past year and a half in Colombia at over sixteen hundred. Often the AUC will go into villages with a list and execute union leaders and others who are reputed to have leftist leanings. In a recently published report titled Colombia: Crimes Against Humanity and Possible Ideological Cleansing, this Center documents fourteen of those massacres. The FARC had previously not been known to perpetrate wholesale massacres until May of 2001 when two massacres in the same town left 34 people dead and most decapitated.

An argument can also be made that much of the violence in Sierra Leone was the result of the RUF undertaking a campaign of terror designed to ideologically cleanse large tracts of territory. The RUF’s campaign was simultaneously an attempt to control the diamond mines, but the unifying factor for RUF members, at least in theory, was ideology. Their brutal, near genocidal campaign “Operation No Living Thing” was an ideological cleansing with massive crimes against humanity clearly evident.
The presence of numerous massacres of unarmed civilians in Colombia alarmed this Center, as it is our primary mission to anticipate unfolding acts of genocide. The massacres in Colombia did not fit into any of the presently common human rights violation boxes, but did appear to be the resurfacing of a nameless crime associated more with the Soviet Union and Maoist China. Ideological cleansing, unseen for years, appears to be rearing its ugly head again.
Richard O’Brien is CEO of The Genocide Prevention Center and Improve The World International. He holds an M.A. in Public Policy Analysis from Georgetown University.

Copyright (c) 2001 by The Genocide Prevention Center. All rights reserved.