Victims of State Crime Research Paper

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This research paper reviews the definitions, measurement, extent, and nature of victims of state crimes as well as relevant justice system policies and resistance to victimization by the state. Current theorizing and research on victims of state crime are discussed as are public and criminal justice policy initiatives. Propositions on the victimology of state crime as well as current research findings suggest that the study of state crime victimization requires an appreciation of creative and innovative social and criminal justice policy changes that attend to the diverse needs of those victimized by the state.

As with definitions of state crime itself, there are many competing ways to conceptualize those victimized by the state. There is obviously a vast array of harm and victimization which result from state crime, as well as multiple types of actors, agents, and organizations which may be directly or indirectly involved in this form of organizational crime. The crimes can be against individuals, property, communities, groups, and states and may cause a range of psychological, physical, community, and emotional trauma. Despite differing ways to classify victims of state crime, most of the scholarly literature on this subject within criminology fit under the following definition: those individuals or groups of individuals who have experienced economic, cultural, or physical harm, pain, exclusion, or exploitation because of tacit or explicit state actions or policies which violate law or generally defined human rights (Kauzlarich et al. 2001). The range of victims of the state is very broad, and can include, but is not limited to, targets of genocide; ethnic cleansing; human and political rights violations; war crimes; natural disasters caused by state action or inaction; those discriminated against by any state agency, especially within justice systems; and, more broadly, those who suffer the worst pain and harm because of larger structural state systems that cause or correlate with unnecessary poverty, illness, and other troubles. Each form of victimization can be broken down into different types of injury. For example, Turkovic (2002, p. 206) has compiled an inventory of the harms experienced by victims of war. These include those killed, unemployed, wounded, forced to conscript, tortured, missing, confined, psychologically distressed (e.g., insomnia, depression), and sexually abused as direct personal harms, along with property victimization. To this we could add the destruction of schools, hospitals, water and food supplies, and so on.

There is some debate in criminology over how to define victims of state crime, especially as it relates to the implication of larger state policies, both implicit and explicit. No one would debate that citizens who are indiscriminately killed or raped in the course of a military invasion are victims of a state. Likewise, there would be little debate on the criminality of the genocide committed some years ago in Rwanda or Cambodia. However, differences do exist on whether states that allow homelessness, suffering because of treatable medical illness, hunger, and economic marginalization are really state crimes or simply social problems. On the one hand, those who favor legalistic definitions of state crimes are less likely to view capitalist or exclusionary activities themselves as criminal, while radical scholars are more likely to speak of victims of the economy in the same way others speak of victims of human rights violations. Further, extensive research has been conducted by Faust and Carlson (2011), Faust and Kauzlarich (2008), and Green (2009) on environmental and natural disasters that are linked to harmful actions or inactions by the state. Interestingly, there may be widespread disagreement among non-scholars in the use of the term victim as applied to natural disasters and indeed among victims themselves. This is very rare in traditional street crime victimization save for so-called public order crimes like prostitution, gambling, and drug use.

On an epistemological level, victimology in general must take into consideration the sources and values upon which it assumes candidacy for classification as a victim. A key controversy is about whether victims and their constituency, both of a state and non-state nature, should also define their experiences as victim-like or whether other standards should be used that may identify injustices and those harmed with or without those subject agreement. Any attempt at a universal definition of state crime victimization is questionable because of the subjective and objective elements of social life in general, let alone injury to a person or group. Using legal standards is not objective because laws and political processes are interest-laden, while more obviously subjective interpretations by people who may be candidates for classification as state crime victims may not accept the label of victim. Consider what Strobl (2010) offers as a constructionist concept of victims: (1) an identifiable event, (2) negative evaluation by the victim, (3) an uncontrollable event, (4) attributable to a personal or social offender, and (5) a violation of a socially shared norm. The second and last points are especially questionable given that the concepts of social norms and cognizance are subject to hegemonic effects in which the attitudes and beliefs of those in power are packaged to be understood as acceptable by the masses, whose interests are not served by elite definitions of social reality. For example, the recent global recession has links to state crimes of omission in terms of the underregulation of financial industries, yet many citizens who have lost jobs or their homes might be unlikely to view such negligence as criminal, or themselves as victims of crime. This debate is similar to what is seen in social problems research in sociology, wherein some scholars believe that in order for a social problem to exist, it should be recognized as such by a majority of people in the citizenry. From a radical approach, such a definition, as that with definitions of state crime victimization that depend on public cognizance, is unacceptable because of the ideological, material, and political control those in power have over those who are less powerful.

Core Propositions

Six propositions on the victimology of state crime were developed by Kauzlarich et al. (2001) and have guided several critical analyses of the phenomenon (see, e.g., Westervelt and Cook’s use of the propositions):

  1. Victims of state crime tend to be among the least socially powerful actors.
  2. Victimizers generally fail to recognize and understand the nature, extent, and harmfulness of institutional policies. If suffering and harm are acknowledged, it is often neutralized within the context of a sense of “entitlement.”
  3. Victims of state crime are often blamed for their suffering.
  4. Victims of state crime must generally rely on its victimizer, an associated institution, or civil social movements for redress.
  5. Victims of state crime are easy targets for repeated victimization by the same organization or institution.
  6. The unethical, immoral, or illegal state policies and practices, while committed by individuals and groups of individuals, are manifestations of the attempt to achieve organizational, bureaucratic, or institutional goals. Indeed, unlike most victims of traditional street crime, those victimized by the state are likely to have even less power to address the injury. Victims of war crimes and genocide, for example, are often in conditions of chaos and most every-day or normative social processes are absent. In these conditions, it is not feasible for victims to contact policing or regulatory bodies for help or redress. Further, victims of state crime are usually harmed by a relatively large and organized institution or group, not by lone offenders as is the case with much traditional street crime. Depending on the organization of the state doing the offending, state crime victims may also have little to no way of finding justice. Citizens of states who are victimized by their own government will often not have any opportunity for redress in weak states, whereas in stronger states they may be able to work through a different arm of the government for a remedy. For example, Chinese citizens have very little chance of finding remedy for human rights violations through their domestic justice system, whereas in the United States, there are examples of victims of nuclear weapon experimentation who have, albeit over decades, received a measure of compensation for the harms. Others harmed by states may have to seek international help in addressing state crimes committed against them, such as systems developed under the International Criminal Court (ICC) or ad hoc international criminal tribunals. Some state crime victims may also be less likely to trace their harm and suffering to the particular offending organization. Unlike a traditional street crime such as robbery or rape where the victim is directly attacked and immediately experiences some or all elements of victimization, the suffering from state crimes and the identification of the offender, like with many white-collar crimes, may come years or decades later. For example, illegal government pollution of the environment or harmful chemicals and agents to which military personnel are exposed may cause health problems long after the initial exposure. Further, layers of bureaucracy and secrecy may hinder the pursuit of the key offenders. It is important to keep in mind, however, that some state crimes are exactly like traditional street crimes but differ only by the context. Sexual and physical assault, theft, robbery, and several other crimes do occur in times of war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing and are committed by state affiliated groups as a way to exercise power and control over a population.

It is not uncommon that revictimization, or compounded victimization, occurs in all kinds of crime situations, but with state crime it can be more profound. Consider only the emotional and social injury caused by illegal military aggression, genocide, and war. Whole families and communities may be killed or injured, and such demolition compounds the initial criminal events, possibly for generations. Rebuilding infrastructure, whether for public health, schooling, roads, or water sanitation, forces resources to be placed into fundamental human needs building rather than improving what once existed. Victims, then, are considerably vulnerable and often public sympathy, if there was any in the first place, relaxes if concerted organizational efforts are not sustained. In the United States, we have seen this take place in myriad circumstances, especially for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, who some even blamed for their loss of property and community. In the United States invasion of Iraq, some several hundred thousand people died by some accounts, and many of these appear to be forgotten in the West, if they were even recognized as victims in the first place. Drawing from studies of genocide and war in Bosnia, Ajdukovic (2006) outlines a host of repairs and initiatives that should follow such conflicts including provision of mental and physical health services, securing social support for families and communities, promotion of nondiscrimination in social, political, legal, and cultural contexts, training in conflict resolution, encouraging tolerance and diversity, and a range of other small-and large-scale social changes.


Victims may or may not be recognized as such by formal legal, regulatory, or human rights commissions. With crimes of the state, this would necessarily include control mechanisms at the domestic and international levels. Consider, for instance, the victims of the Rwandan genocide at the state level, where the recognition is of Tutsis as victims. Yet, many Hutu were also victimized. Likewise, international institutions of control remain selective who they define and label as a victim. This has serious ramifications for victim recourse as well as victim healing and accurate accounts of facts and subsequent history of their victimization. Additionally, it must not be overlooked that in many cases the victim can be rightly labeled as victim/offender. Here again, looking at Rwanda, testimony of various Hutu highlight how they view themselves as perpetrator but victims due to the fact that they were faced with being killed or killing Tutsi. In many cases, the processes of labeling or lack thereof can result in new forms of victimization and/or revictimization. The complexities and multiple layers of seeing oneself as a victim, accepting such a label, being given a victims label by others, exclusion or inclusion as a victim in mass atrocity settings facilitates another issue: How can we measure and know the totality of state crime victimization (Rothe and Kauzlarich forthcoming a)?

A key issue associated with the study of state criminality is to know the actual numbers of victims (Bijeveld 2007). As we know with street crime, there is a dark figure involved. Yet, criminologists attempt to get beyond this and obtain estimates that are more reflective by using, though imperfect, multiple venues available (self-report surveys, the United States’ National Crime Victimization Survey, and the British Crime Survey are well known examples). However, with international crimes, this dark figure is a “doubly dark figure” (Bijeveld 2007, p. 4). In part, this can be due to a state’s unwillingness to disclose the information for multiple reasons, victims’ desires to remain silent, lack of survivors, lack of pre-conflict census data, lack of post-conflict citizenry data, significant population displacements, and a score of other variables. As such, criminologists must attempt to use multiple methods to make the doubly dark figure of the crimes, at best, a dark figure of the crimes. The important task of counting the precise number of victims remains a laborious task, yet not only is it important but it also speaks to the difficulty of using quantitative methods. For example, the death toll in Darfur has been estimated to be between 60,000 and 160,000. However, the Coalition for International Justice reports estimates near 400,000. The number of victims from the genocide in Rwanda is estimated to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000. The mortality rate of Pakistanis, due to the conflict in 1971, varies by a threefold variation, between one and three million, and estimates of the death toll in Congo between 1964 and 1965 varies tenfold. During the twentieth century, it has been suggested that 170 million people have been killed in “conflicts of a non-international character, internal conflicts and tyrannical regime victimization” (Bassiouni 1996, p. 2). Since the beginning of the twenty-first century there have been hundreds of thousands more killed, maimed, tortured, displaced, and/or raped. For those who use a more expansive definition of state criminality, the harms are even more insurmountable when we consider those generated by states’ omitting to alleviate specific conditions, or respond to natural disasters, cases of institutionalized racism, ethonocism, classism, and a host of other injuries. As you can see, figures for victims display enormous variance.

There are various forms that can be used to obtain statistics, no different than those used for traditional street crime, namely, victim surveys. These have been used for estimating mortality. Yet, in situations of these types of crime, significant portions of the population may have fled the country or may reside in refugee centers abroad, making it more difficult to account for the double-dark figures; or, if entire families were killed, mortality would be underestimated. An additional barrier to obtaining exact numbers or using victimization surveys is the inability to often go to the regions affected if the conflict is ongoing. Security issues can affect access to areas and thus the representativeness of the total numbers of victims. Further, some victims may not be willing to open up and share their experiences; this is particularly the case with victims of genocidal rape. Additionally, many victims may not know or perceive themselves as victims of state crime. Others may self-identify as such but be denied the status through efforts to ensure state legitimacy and to cover state criminality. Regretfully, the true numbers of victims of state crime will remain a “doubly-doubly-doubly” dark figure that is really beyond what most of us could comprehend (Rothe and Kauzlarich forthcoming).


Popular thinking about victims often dubiously assumes that victim healing can be accomplished simply through the formal processing of the offender(s). The logic here is that if the perpetrator is caught, tried, convicted, and punished, the victim will be able to somehow regain what she or he has lost. This common-sense belief, however, has been shown to be overly optimistic and quite naıve (Lobwein 2006). While it is true that some victims report feeling better about, for example, honoring their dead family members by telling their story on the stand, just as many appear to find formal criminal justice procedures alienating, frustrating, and without much healing power (Stover 2005). This is an exceptionally common finding in traditional street crime victimological studies.

Most truth commissions and international courts cannot regularly deliver outcomes or structure their proceedings in an expressly victimcentered manner. With truth commissions, it is often uncertain before and sometimes after a commission completes its investigation whether or not individual offenders will be named, and further, whether trials may be conducted on the basis of the information collected in a truth commission proceeding. The record shows that of the several dozen truth commission convened to date, only four have named the perpetrators. In some instances, complete and wholesale amnesty was given to offenders, as in the case in El Salvador, while the Argentinean truth commission investigation eventually led to criminal trials (Hayner 2001, 2006). In the case of South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was allowed to offer amnesty or a case by case basis, although the names of offenders were a matter of public record. Indeed, Hamber et al. (2000) study shows that almost all of the South African victims they interviewed felt that granting amnesty to offender is unfair or simply “wrong.” Victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda echo this sentiment in a sense as almost half of those surveyed indicated that, among other things such as restorative justice processes, perpetrators should be held accountable for their crimes and punished (Pham et al. 2005). It must also be understood that truth commissions are principally fact finding units, not a victim services center. Historically, truth commissions tend to be carried in places trying to recover from war, massive oppression, and economic and political crisis. The lack of material resources along with the primary business of fact gathering often lead to dissatisfaction and anger.

There are better alternatives for victims than these bureaucratic justice procedures that rely on principles of restorative rather than retributive justice. Some justice systems use a combination of these justice philosophies, while others are strictly one or the other. An interesting hybrid is evidenced by the relatively new International Criminal Court (ICC) which has an unprecedented system for helping victims. While the Court is still very traditional in terms of adversarial justice processes, the promising Victims Trust Fund has done much more than simply focus on punishing offenders. The trust fund has primarily helped victims of state crimes in Congo and Uganda, and has provided resources for psychological counseling, physical rehabilitation, education, various health services, and material support for education and agriculture. The Trust Fund is especially concerned with the following groups: Victims of sexual and gender-based violence, widows/widowers, former child soldiers and abducted youth, orphans and other vulnerable children, and victims suffering from physical and mental trauma (Trust Fund for Victims 2011). Interestingly, a sitting judge on the ICC has recently written a fascinating essay on her concerns with the manner in which the ICC can truly give victims voice, provide reparations, and facilitate healing (Van den Wyngaert 2012). Her main concerns are that the ICC is a bureaucratic, formal legal-adversarial system, and not a fully victim-centered process, and that because the Trust Fund is based mostly on individual and state donations, one should expect less than ideal results for victims. Alternatively, a fully restorative justice approach to harm and healing would center on three major stakeholders, the victim, the offender, and the community. The goals would be for offenders to recognize, apologize, and atone for their crimes, for victims to be free to voice their pain and suffering and be given resources to heal, and for the community to rebuild itself after crime or violence.

Resisting state crime and victimization has become a major point of interest for criminologists. Stanley and McCulloch (2013) have produced an anthology that considers a whole range of techniques and approaches that may be used to object to state crimes such as human rights violations in the Middle East, West Papua, Sri Lanka, the United States, the United Kingdom and other areas focusing on civil, popular, state, and international forms of resistance. The main question for scholars is what actions may be taken to reduce the harms caused by states, whether in official criminal or civil law, international regulation, social movement activities, social media outlets, or structural changes in the essential functions of states. As with any scholarly examination, the crime and the victim are obviously intertwined, but because of the likelihood for state crime to directly involve politically legitimate entities as offenders and their subjects or enemies as victims, the fundamental relationship between institutional power and individuals or groups of individuals with considerably less power reveals two major dynamics. First, resisting some types of state crimes, such as discrimination against the rights of gays and lesbians to marry may be facilitated by a combination of legal challenges, publicity, and social movement activities. Likewise with incidences of police or correctional officer brutality, states with greater freedoms may be challenged quite directly through politics and the media. In these types of situations, challenges to victimization and repeat victimizations may ultimately sway social opinion, the legal or political systems, and the populace to take notice of state crimes and effectively challenge them through both civil and state avenues. For states with less freedom of the press and assembly, resisting victimization is considerably more difficult as any resistance itself may be criminalized. Numerous examples of resistance to state crime victimization in the form of human rights violations in China, Iraq, Cuba, and many other areas of the globe illustrate how without substantial social movement activity, as found in some revolutions in the Arab Spring, resistance is weak and further victimization is more likely. Second, state crime victimization can occur as a result of higher level international affairs issues, which is not at all how most traditional crimes and victimizations take place. War always results in innocent killing and injury, and both soldiers and civilians are victimized. Most actors caught in the crossfire are unable to resist victimization for obvious reasons, and international aid agencies such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders become primary aides in helping address injury. As recently witnessed in the face of gross human rights violation in Syria, without substantial political agreement among major powers within the United Nations, especially within the Security Council, little can be done to relieve the suffering from war.

As the state crime literature in criminology has advanced over the last two decades, the study of the victims of this form of crime has lagged behind, but has been bolstered in the last few years with more interest in the subject matter. Enduring issues in this area of inquiry are the definition of state crime itself, conceptualizations of victims, measuring and recording victimization, resisting victimization, and justice processes, whether formal or informal, to address state harms both prior to and after the victimization occurs.


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