State Crime Research Paper

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State crimes have been one of the foremost social problems of the past 100 years, with wide-reaching costs and levels of victimization. During the course of the twentieth century, the state crimes of Turkey, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and Maoist China were especially large-scale, dramatic examples. More current examples include the continued possession of nuclear weapons by some states in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; the US wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan; genocides and crimes against humanity that include the Serbian attack on Bosnian and Croatia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sudan’s actions against Darfur; and the Democratic Republic of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s wars and stealing of natural resources by states and corporations alike. Other charges of state crime occurring around the world as of 2011 include the political, economic, and militarized oppression involving Egypt, Israel, the United States, China, Russia, Chechnya, and North Vietnam all of which have resulted in the victimization of tens of millions that lost their lives, were rendered homeless, imprisoned, and psychologically and physically damaged through the illegal or socially harmful actions of governments.

Despite the gravity, costs, and extensiveness of crimes committed by states, the field of state crime remains understudied relative to conventional street crimes in the field of criminology and criminal justice. Nonetheless, over the last two decades, considerable theoretical, conceptual, and empirical progress has been made by criminologists to better specify the nature, extent, distribution, causal variables, and issues associated with state violence. However, there remain two primary areas of debate within the field of state crime: the standard by which to define state crime and the issue of controlling state criminality for practitioners, politicians, citizens, as well scholars of state crime. This research paper provides an overview of the history of state crime and subsequent costs, followed by a discussion of the contentious issues that remain within the field. The paper concludes with a potential philosophical change that could prove to be the most fruitful means in which to constrain and control state criminality.

The Fundamentals

History And Overview Of The Field Of State Crime

The criminological study of state crime can be traced back to Edwin Sutherland (1939), who called attention to a then-neglected form of crime, namely, the crimes of respectable people in the context of a legitimate occupation and of corporations. His extension of the concept of crime, beyond its conventional parameters, provided an important foundation built upon by several later scholars of white-collar crime. However, one can argue that William Chambliss’ 1988 American Society of Criminology Presidential address on state-organized crime provided the more direct and immediate inspiration for more systematic attention to crimes of the state. Exploring crimes such as piracy and smuggling, Chambliss showed how states can be crucial in the organization and support of activities that violate their own laws and international laws when doing so fulfills their broader political and economic objectives. A number of criminologists, particularly critical criminologists, quickly adopted the concept, broadening and enriching the field. Their early work focused not only on crimes tacitly supported or organized by a sovereign polity but also on actions committed on behalf of states themselves. However, the early research on state criminality was plagued by definitional issues and generated much debate regarding whether the individual or the state (organization) was culpable for acts deemed state crime and what standards should be used to define state criminality. These two contested areas cut to the core of the field of criminology in general; thus, it was not surprising that this debate influenced the early development of the field of state crime and, in some cases, continues today and will be discussed further in the following sections.

Regardless of the remaining contentious issues associated with standards and definitions, since the onset of criminological inquiry concerning state criminality began the field has grown exponentially. For example, literature has been produced on state crime with topics ranging from the US invasion of Iraq, the illegal use of and threatened use of nuclear weapons, the ongoing genocide in Darfur, crimes against humanity in Uganda, the treatment of illegal aliens, the US role in and lack of response to Hurricane Katrina, to the many cases of state-corporate crime such as the Challenger, Imperial Foods, ValuJet cases, and more recently cases involving Halliburton, BP, and Abu Ghraib. Additionally, there are now two comprehensive texts on state crime, Penny Green and Tony Ward’s (2004) State Crime and Dawn L. Rothe’s (2009) State Criminality: The Crime of all Crimes, and six edited anthologies on state crime, including Resistance to State

Crime, edited by Elizabeth Stanley and Jude McCulloch (2012); State Crime in the Global Age edited by William Chambliss, Raymond Michalowski, and Ronald Kramer (2010); State Crime, Current Perspectives, edited by Dawn L. Rothe and Christopher W. Mullins (2010); State-Corporate Crime: Wrongdoing at the Intersection of Business and Government edited by Raymond Michalowski and Ronald Kramer (2006); and Varieties of State Crime and its Control, edited Jeffrey Ian Ross (2000). Additionally, John Hagan’s (2010) Who Are the Criminals? The Politics of Crime Policy from the Age of Roosevelt to the Age of Reagan examines both state policies towards street crime as well as acts of state crime within and beyond the borders of the United States. Other cognate areas of state crime include political crimes, political white-collar crimes, environmental crimes, finance crimes, and the recently added crimes of globalization.

Costs Of State Crime

Committing the most harmful of crimes are entities and individuals acting on the behalf of, or in the name of, the state. The types of costs include physical costs such as death, dismemberment, torture, ill health, and other costs associated with interpersonal violence directly and indirectly; environmental costs that include natural resources; economic costs; and psychological costs that are associated with a host of victimization and perpetrator mental and emotional health issues. For example, crimes of the state also can lead to the destruction of infrastructures, resulting in additional devastating harms (e.g., the 2002 sinking of the Senegalese ferry Le Joola with a loss of more than 1,000 lives) and environmental destruction with lasting effects on generations of citizens (e.g., the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl). Perhaps most importantly, state-committed crimes rip asunder the social trust between a state and its citizenry as well as trust between states (e.g., invasion and occupation of sovereign states, including most recently Iraq). When states violate such trust, domestically or internationally, they threaten the security of the global order, peace, and their own legitimacy. Given the above, it is impossible to estimate an overall cost associated with state crime, yet, we do know it far outweighs that of street crime.

Key Issues And Controversies

History Of Contention: Definitions And Standards

Dating back to Sutherland, the notion of an organization being criminally liable had consistently been met with resistance by criminologists until the late 1970s through the mid-1980. During this period some criminologists began to incorporate ideas from organizational sociologists’ research as they argued that social scientists needed to move beyond focusing on the individuals who make up an organization and to recognize that the aggregate whole functions as an entity. As such, it was suggested that organizations, as social actors, can and should be the primary focus of analysis in state and corporate crime.

Others strongly objected to the notion of a state, as a social actor, in an analysis of state or corporate crime. Furthermore, within criminology, the idea of a state being criminally liable was met with significant resistance. There were those that denied state criminality was possible. However, within the international legal arena, the notion of a state as an actor that could be held accountable was already well underway as the concept of a state, as an entity possessing individual rights and subject to criminal liability, emerged back in the mid-1900s. Likewise, several legal scholars observed that there was a connection between individual criminal responsibility and state criminal responsibility under international law.

On the other hand, scholars who supported the idea of state criminality were divided upon the standards to be used to define such acts as criminal between those who favored a legalistic frame and others who favored a broader frame ranging from social harms to human rights. The tensions and debates over defining state crime, however, reflect a broader debate within criminology itself. Utilization of state-produced legal codes has long been the stated and unstated norm. Such a reliance on state-produced definitions has caused tensions within street crime and white-collar crime studies, with critically orientated criminologists rejecting state-produced definitions. The political nature of law production has long been the main rationale for this rejection given that one cannot separate the nature of the political process that guides legislatures (and legislators) from the legislation produced. Further, states have an inherent drive to fulfill their own self-interest and not define harmful and problematic behavior as criminal (especially their own). Consequentially, within the field of state crime in particular, alternative formulations have been advanced, including the standard of basic human rights precepts, socially analogous harms, and social harm framework, to the perceptions of the state’s citizens, each not without their own criticisms, strengths, and weaknesses.


The substance of a debate about definitions goes beyond merely critiquing the source or the substance of a given definition as alternative formulations were put forth. For example, in 1970, Herman and Julia Schwendinger suggested using a humanistic approach that would draw from objectively identifiable harms to humans and violations of human rights as the core definition of crime. Others have advocated that crimes are any socially injurious actions, regardless of the actor in question. Still some scholars have advocated that state crime should be defined by a social audience that recognizes the act as deviant. More recently, some criminologists have called for the abandonment of the concept of crime entirely in favor of Zemiology, the study of harm, thus, a social harm standard. In general, two positions on standards to be used to classify state actions as criminal remain within the broader definitional debate among scholars of state crime: crime as a social harm definition and a legalist approach.

The legalist approach includes a state’s own domestic law as well as the broader umbrella of international public law (customary law, treaties, charters, and the newly emerged criminal law). This framework includes other approaches and standards such as human rights and social and economic harms. Furthermore, international criminal law covers individuals as well as states, thus resolving any enduring reservations of the state as actors versus individuals. Additionally, the legalists’ use of extant statute identifies an external reference point, while other approaches are said to use a more amorphous and relativistic definitional rubric. Those that accept the use of a legalistic standard suggest that it adds legitimacy to the field’s definition. Legalists argue that if a critique of state crime studies is that they are not truly scientific but rather politically inspired diatribes, establishing the illegality of such actions under a legal code is a fitting response to such critiques. Nonetheless, this approach has been criticized as another example of continuing to use law as a “tool of the state” to control the very entities that create it.

The social harm approach begins with the realization that crime has no ontological reality and it is subjectively defined by states within the context of broader issues of power and political and economic interests. In the case of crimes of the powerful, harmful activities are rarely defined as criminal. Many acts and behaviors that cause serious harm are not part of the domestic or international criminal law, thus being omitted by those using a stricter rubric such as the legalist standard. Those advocating this framework suggest that harm be defined as physical, financial and economical, psychological and emotional, sexual, and cultural. This includes the observable forms of harm, but also those seemingly more “natural” including death and illness caused by starvation, untreated treatable illnesses due to lack of medical care, those who lose their traditions and communities due to economic displacement and relocation, and a host of other ways millions of humans suffer and experience harm as a result of state policies and actions. Most importantly, this approach focuses on the origins of the harm rather than merely the actors or states involved or the act itself. This is not to say the other approaches do not do this in their theoretical and analytical assessments; however, those working from a social harm perspective begin with this focus.

There are pros and cons to using either standard to determine what is to be considered a state crime. For example, the use of international law provides clarity and precision in the definitional processes. One need not negotiate the problematic aspects of defining “harm” per se. One of the major issues with using the legalist framework is that both state-produced law and international law are the result of a questionably legitimate political process. Additionally, given the objective nature of law as defined, there is the criticism that using it as a frame to define behavior as criminal serves to maintain particular power relations at both the state and international level. In fact, international law often fails to be created or is created in a nonjusticiable way, to express politicization of its construction. While states not only have the ability to define crime, they are more often than not powerful enough to resist definitions of crime that label their own behavior criminal. The above issues are also related to a separate but equally important problem: that of enforcement.

On the other hand, the social harm framework allows for various forms of negligence and actions that are harmful yet do not meet any extant legal definition of crime to be examined and decried. This perspective allows criminologists to develop their own determination of their subject matter rather than rely on predetermined laws and human rights to dictate the field of inquiry or make the claim that a particular state behavior is “wrong,” thus removing the external political influences. The social harm perspective then avoids the formal institutionalized problematic way in which crime is defined and potential additional levels of harm that could be generated by controlling crime in general through a formal system of response. Nonetheless, using a social harm frame has its own weaknesses. While this framework might add a conceptual and ideological purity to definitional processes, it takes an already broad subject matter and casts the net wider to what could be perceived as nearly the entirety of individual and institutional behavior within contemporary societies. Additionally, as with any other standard, the question becomes who then defines what is or is not harm?

Given the strengths and weaknesses of the above standards, the field of state crime now incorporates both positions. For example, while a legalist may well stick to the standard of international public law, there are times when such a standard is not acceptable. Consider the research on state crime involving, explicitly and implicitly, international financial institutions (IFIs) or crimes of globalization. Here, the intersection of these institutions not only results in immense harm, but the harms are not covered through the application of international public law, save for human rights violations in some cases. Although the policies and implicit and explicit actions of these IFIs can result in or facilitate state criminality, they are not covered under international public law, thus requiring a broader standard for defining such actions as “criminal.” On the other hand, the use of a social harm standard can be complementary to the legalist approach when such harms include human rights violations. In both of the examples noted, the intermixing of these standards provides researchers of state criminality with the objective foundation as argued by the legalists within the limitations of the legal perspective. The value of both positions should not be recognized as the field of state crime research continues to grow.

The Quagmire Of Controlling State Criminality

Resisting or controlling state criminality is bound to some degree with the definitional quagmire. Those that draw from the legalist standard promote formal and informal accountability mechanisms from social condemnation to prosecution. On the other hand, scholars working within the social harm framework generally see resistance and controls not in terms of accountability but in terms of policy responses. There are additional forms of harm that result from relying on a crime control industry. According to those who embrace a social harm standard, it is far more important to address not just the harms committed but also the underlying structural conditions that facilitated them. Accordingly, they suggest that this requires debates about policy and resources rather than handing the problem over to another arm of the broader power structure that, more often than not, further facilitates social harms: a criminal justice system. It requires using something beyond “the masters’ tools” to confront, constrain, and control state crime. This can include movements from below, including social movements as has been witnessed in 2011 in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries and with the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Other scholars of state crime view international law as fundamental to the potential control of crimes of the state and mechanisms of accountability. These mechanisms include an international court such as the International Criminal Court and other states’ domestic criminal justice systems. Additionally, impunity for crimes of the elite has long been an issue. Granting them near immunity for their actions in favor of extensive definitional and policy-related debates would suggest a reinforcement of impunity. Further, controlling state crime and holding heads of state or other high-ranking government officials accountable have long been met with contradictions and controversy from the perspective of state crime scholars as well as juristic practitioners. Consider that current geopolitical and international legal structures offer no threat of consequences. International law can be violated without threat of prosecution simply because there is no empowered institution to do so, and when it does occur, it is riddled with issues of selectivity. This reality has led many criminologists to deduce that the legalist standard and subsequent domestic and international laws are meaningless and not a valid framework for identifying or controlling state criminality. Indeed, for the legalist standard, the greatest obstacle is to actually control state criminality in some meaningful way. This includes ending impunity in the face of realpolitik and power differentials at the international level.

Discussions of resistance to complex forms of state criminality range from the formal to the informal, from the individual to the local to the state level, and to the international level. At the individual level, there are cases of dissenters and whistleblowers, as examples. At the local, organizational, and state levels, there are NGOs, media outlets, social movements, and political and civil groups that attempt to change existing conditions and expose state criminality. At the international level, there are political pressures from other states and international intergovernmental organizations and international laws that serve as deterrents to state crimes or after-the-fact accountability. Within each of these categories, resistance fluctuates and occurs at various points of time in relation to specific state criminality and the resources of organizations. It is through all of these mechanisms that awareness of the harms produced and illegalities of states’ actions can come to be recognized and generate appropriate responses.

Future Directions

The term cosmopolitan is an ideology expressing that all of humanity belongs to a single moral community: an ideology for “global citizenship.” Such an ideology is not new. For centuries philosophers have speculated on the conditions for achieving enduring peace between nations, one of which includes the notion of cosmopolitism or universalism. Consider Kant’s thoughts in his 1795 essay Perpetual Peace, where he suggests ius cosmopoliticum (cosmopolitan law/right) be a guiding principle to protect people from war – grounded in the belief of universal hospitality. In more contemporary times, the idea of cosmopolitism reemerged in both formal and informal political realms that included the development of a United Nations, the global citizen, and an international community. While there remains a distinct contradiction between this ideology and the current state of international affairs, one vision for the future would be a reality of the ideal type where global citizens become the primary consideration in foreign policy and state actions. There is no magic answer or quick policy fix for state crimes: the worst crimes. It is an ongoing problem that requires diligence, commitment, and a change in ideology, praxis, and relations.


  1. Chambliss W (1990) State organized crime. Criminology 27(2):183–208
  2. Chambliss W, Michalowski R, Kramer R (eds) (2010) State crime in a globalized age. Willin Press, Devon
  3. Green P, Ward T (2004) State crime: governments, violence and corruption. London: Pluto Press
  4. Hagan J (2010) Who are the criminals? The politics of crime policy from the age of Roosevelt to the age of Reagan. Princeton University Press, Princeton
  5. Michalowski R, Kramer RC (eds) (2006) State-corporate crime: wrongdoing at the intersection of business and government. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
  6. Ross JI (ed) (2000) Varieties of state crime and its control. Criminal Justice Press, Mosney
  7. Rothe DL (2009) State criminality: the crime of all crimes. Lexington/Roman and Littlefield, Manheim
  8. Rothe DL, Mullins CW (eds) (2010) State crime, current perspectives. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
  9. Stanley E, McCulloch J (2012) Resistance to state crime. Routledge Press, London
  10. Sutherland E (1939) White collar criminality. Presidential address to the American society of sociology. Reprinted 1940. American Sociological Review 5:1–12

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