State Crimes

When we think of criminals, we often think of singular members of society. However, it's not only individuals that are capable of committing crimes. Sometimes the state is responsible for committing crimes. For obvious reasons, it can often be much more complicated to identify and prosecute offenders of state crimes.

State Crimes State Crimes

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Table of contents

    Let's explore the idea of state crimes in the following article.

    • We will be looking at the definition, types, examples, offenders, and victims of state crimes.
    • We will also look at the relationship between state crime and international human rights, as well as the role of bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).
    • We will evaluate the various complexities associated with holding states accountable for their crimes.

    State crimes in sociology

    State crimes are a key topic in the topic of crime and deviance in sociology; it is a distinct type of crime that is studied by sociologists. Let's consider the definition of state crimes.

    Definition of state crime in criminology and sociology

    Green and Ward (2005) 1 defined state crimes as:

    illegal or deviant activities perpetrated by the state, or with the complicity of state agencies."

    Simply put:

    State crimes refer to any crime committed by, or on behalf of nation-states to achieve their individual policies.

    The difference between individual and state crimes

    While criminal law usually concerns itself with crimes on behalf of an individual (natural or legal), state crime is more concerned with crimes on behalf of organisations. It is interesting to note that while governments of states may break their own laws, state crime usually focuses more on states breaking international law.

    According to Eugene McLaughlin (2001), there are four types of state crime. These are the following:

    • Crimes committed by police and security

    • Political crimes

    • Economic crimes

    • Social and cultural crimes

    • Core international crimes

    Examples of state crimes in sociology

    We will go through each category of state crime below and provide examples.

    Crimes by security and police forces include genocide, torture, and war crimes. Although these types of crimes may have similarities and overlaps, it is important to note the differences between them.

    • Genocide is the deliberate killing of a group of people belonging to a nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying the nation or ethnicity.

    • Torture is the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.

    • A war crime refers to a deliberate violation of laws of war by those in the field, such as killing innocent civilians or sexually abusing women during the invasion of another country.

    Political crimes include corruption and censorship. Corruption is the dishonest or fraudulent conduct by someone in power, for example, a political figure electing themselves into power without democratic means (no election, or rigged election).

    Censorship is the deliberate suppression of any form of information. For example, the removal of a film scene by labelling it as too political, when it is merely portraying the reality of the political situation of a country.

    Another form of political state crime is assassination, which refers to the premeditated act of killing someone, suddenly and secretly. State-sponsored assassination or 'targeted killing' of terrorists has increasingly become a debated topic.

    Bribery is an important example of a state economic crime.

    Bribery refers to giving something of value to influence the actions of someone in charge of public or legal duty. It is a sad truth that public officials in many countries accept bribes from major corporations. In return, they either enable legislation that supports such organisations, or conveniently overlook their mistakes.

    Social and cultural crimes include discrimination and institutional racism.

    Discrimination is the unjust treatment of different categories of people based on their characteristics, such as age, sex, ethnicity, nationality, or religious beliefs. This may happen, for example, when government legislations disadvantage certain groups in society more than others.

    Institutional racism is a form of discrimination that has been going on for so long that it has now become embedded in the laws, structure, and functioning of a society or organisation. The 'Black Lives Matter' movement is based on fighting against such institutional racism in the USA.

    Core international crimes

    We will also consider a specific category of state crime, called core international crimes.

    Core international crimes are crimes that are considered so gross that they threaten the peace, security, and well-being of humanity as a whole. The crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes are collectively recognised as the core international crimes.

    Under international law, the primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute these crimes falls on states. It is thus ironic that sometimes, it is the state itself that is the perpetrator.

    Since states have control over large territories and a massive population, the extent of state crime in terms of numbers can be staggering.

    The Cambodian genocide in the 1970s wiped out about 25 percent of the population, an estimated 2 million people. Similarly, during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, members of the Hutu majority group slaughtered approximately 500,000 - 1,000,000 of the minority Tutsi group, about 20 percent of Rwanda’s total population.

    State Crime, Soldiers running with guns on the sand, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Often, it is states and their agents that cause large-scale crime to further a particular policy of interest.

    Offenders of state crimes

    So, who are the offenders of state crimes? Whenever any individual associated with the government harms the rights of someone to pursue the interests or policies of the state, it can be said to be a state crime.

    However, it may not always be obvious who the offenders of state crimes are. How wide is the scope of what counts as 'the state'?

    Jeffrey Ian Ross (2000) defined a state as "the elected and appointed officials, the bureaucracy, and the institutions, bodies, and organisations comprising the apparatus of the government".

    If we analyse this definition, the state is essentially the government and everything it runs - including politicians or civil servants. Imagine a ship sailing in the ocean - it changes crew from time to time. Similarly, if the state is the ship, the governments that run it are the crew on the ship.

    Further, the definition can be stretched to include public sector workers such as the police, doctors, teachers, and members of the armed forces - all of whom can be considered an extension of the state and whose acts contribute to state crime.

    Note here that there are two important aspects for an act to be a state crime - the act must be done by someone who is an agent of the state, and the act must be done in furtherance of a state policy or interest.

    Please note that just because an individual works for the state, that does not mean whatever wrong he commits is a state crime. For example, a civil servant can be involved in corruption for his own personal benefit. This is clearly not an example of a state crime.

    Due to the vast scope of state crimes, the study of victims and victimology in state crimes is extensive, and there are several definitions of what constitutes a victim.

    Kauzlarich, Matthews and Miller (2001) 2 state that scholars have identified several groups of people as victims of state crime. These include:

    • civilians and war soldiers

    • groups targeted for genocide

    • individuals suffering from sexism, racism and classism

    • prisoners

    • countries that are oppressed by other powerful countries

    • immigrants

    • criminal suspects

    • the environment

    Let's now consider a working definition of the victims of state crimes.

    The victims of state crime: definition

    Following from the above, who the victims of state crimes are largely depends on the nature of the state crime itself.

    David Kauzlarich (1995) defined state crime victims as "individuals or groups of individuals who have experienced economic, cultural, or physical harm, pain, exclusion, or exploitation because of state actions or policies which violate the law or generally defined human rights".

    Thus, any individual or group whose human rights have been violated due to an act of a state in furtherance of its policies may be a state crime victim.

    Victims of state crime may further be divided into two types:

    • Victims of domestic state crime: victims whose rights have been violated by the government of their own state. For example, victims of religious discrimination perpetrated by their own government.

    • Victims of international state crime: victims whose rights have been violated by the government in another state (or states). For example, victims of war crimes.

    State crimes and human rights

    We will be looking at state crimes and human rights, specifically the relationship between the two.

    Recognition and codification of state crimes

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was developed by the United Nations after World War II, in an attempt to codify basic human rights that are available to an individual as a birthright (by virtue of them being born as human beings).

    The UDHR enlists thirty basic human rights and freedoms, which include:

    • Right to life and liberty

    • Right to freedom from torture

    • Right to freedom of speech, opinion, thoughts, and expression

    • Right to equality

    • Right to work

    • Right to privacy

    • Right to seek asylum

    Human rights can be violated if they are not protected or are disregarded.

    A human rights violation refers to a situation where someone's human rights are not protected or blatantly disregarded.

    State crimes: international human rights law and obligations of states

    The basic principles of international human rights law provide that states have three major obligations in relation to human rights:

    1. They must respect human rights and not violate these rights themselves.

    2. They must protect individuals and groups against human rights violations.

    3. They should take positive steps to ensure individuals enjoy their human rights.

    The second and third obligations are indicative of the fact that it is not enough for states to merely refrain from violating rights, they must take positive action towards the materialisation of such rights and freedoms.

    Criminologists such as Herman Schwendinger (1970) used this framework to adopt a transgressive approach to state crime. They argued that any country that denies its people fundamental human rights which are available to people elsewhere, can be considered to be guilty of state crime. Consider the example below:

    Countries that do not recognise homosexuality and deny LGBTQ individuals basic rights may be considered to be committing state crimes.

    Based on this, state crime can be classified as:

    1. Direct state crime: intentionally performed by states.

    2. Indirect state crime: the result of the state failing to protect someone’s rights.

    State Crime, UN building with flags of different countries, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The United Nations, in the aftermath of World War II, introduced the UDHR to lay down basic human rights every individual is entitled to.

    Liability of states for state crimes

    You may ask - if states themselves are responsible for their own justice systems, and it is the states themselves who are perpetrating crimes, who holds them responsible?

    It is an extremely valid question; one that has puzzled the international community for a long time, especially in the aftermath of gross violations of human rights, such as in the case of the Holocaust.

    That is how the International Criminal Court (ICC) came into existence. In creating the ICC, the global community of sovereign nations recognised that it was necessary to put an end to grave crimes that violated the rights of many.

    The ICC, established by the Rome Statute, acts as a court of last resort that can try individuals alleged of committing crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes when the domestic jurisdiction of the state in question is incapable of doing so. This means it can try states as well. However, the reality of the matter remains that states are rarely tried at the ICC.

    Complexities associated with state crime

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that in 2000, approximately 310,000 people were killed as a result of collective war-related violence; a figure equivalent to 20 percent of all global violent deaths at the time. Even then, this figure did not include domestic deaths caused by security and police forces, given the secrecy that is associated with a state crime.

    This is indicative of how measuring state crime is a difficult task. Stan Cohen (1996) identified a ‘spiral of denial’ that states use when accused of human rights abuses.

    In fact, due to the hegemony and power associated with states around the globe, state crime is fraught with complexities. Some of them are discussed below.

    Law enforcement is a part of the state's responsibility and oftentimes, it is the law enforcement officials who engage in state crimes. This makes it difficult to identify the culprits and hold them accountable.

    Often, states hide behind nationalistic views or the need to promote domestic security as an excuse to propagate state crimes. This is a good example of neutralisation techniques, identified by Sykes and Matza (1957) in the 'neutralisation theory'.

    According to the theory, the wrongdoer may sometimes use neutralisation techniques such as denial of responsibility, denial of injury, and denial of the victim, among others, to neutralise or justify their actions.

    As opposed to individuals or organisations, states are difficult to hold accountable. International law, regardless of the presence of bodies such as the ICC, has extremely limited effects on states. For example, a state is not bound by international law if it does not ratify particular legislation.

    State Crimes - Key takeaways

    • State crime refers to any crime committed by, or on behalf of nation-states to achieve their individual policies.
    • There are four categories of state crime: crimes by security and police forces (genocide, torture, and war crime), political crimes (corruption, assassination, and censorship), economic crimes (bribery), and social and cultural crimes (discrimination and institutional racism).
    • Some examples of state crimes are genocide, war crimes, torture, assassination, corruption, and discrimination.
    • The ICC was established by the Rome Statute and acts as a court of last resort for crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes when the domestic jurisdiction of the state in question is incapable of doing so.
    • There are multiple complexities associated with quantifying and identifying state crimes. Some of them include secrecy related to state actions, state denial to acknowledge state crimes, and difficulty in enforcing international law.


    1. Green, P. Ward, T (2005) Introduction. The British Journal of Criminology. (Vol. 45 Issue 4).
    2. Kauzlarich, D. Matthews, RA. Miller, J. (2001) Toward a Victimology of State Crime. Critical Criminology. Kluwer Law International.
    Frequently Asked Questions about State Crimes

    What is meant by a state crime?

    Green and Ward (2005) define state crime as ‘illegal or deviant activities perpetrated by the state, or with the complicity of state agencies’. Simply put, any crime committed by, or on behalf of nation-states to achieve their individual policies is a state crime.

    What are some examples of state crimes?

    Examples of state crime include genocide, war crimes, torture, assassination, corruption, discrimination, and funding terrorist groups and other criminal organisations.

    Who commits state crimes?

    State crime can be committed by any individual associated with the government, who harms the rights of someone in order to pursue the interests or policies of the state. However, an agent of the state who is acting for his own benefit rather than for the state’s benefit will not be said to have committed a state crime.

    Who is a typical victim of state crime?

    A state victim is typically any individual or group whose human rights have been violated due to an act of a state in furtherance of its policies. An example of this is a victim of religious discrimination perpetrated by their own government.

    Why is state crime a crime?

    More often than not, a state crime is a crime due to a state breaking some aspect of international law. For example, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enlists certain basic freedoms and rights. If a state does not adhere to them, this leads to a violation. The state is said to have committed a crime.

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    Team State Crimes Teachers

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