Study notes

State Crimes

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

State crimes are crimes committed by governments. They were defined by Penny Green and Tony Ward (2005) as "illegal or deviant activities perpetrated by, or with, the complicity of state agencies”.

Of course, states generally create the laws of their countries and while governments may break their own laws, it is more likely the case that they are breaking international law; or their actions should be seen in terms of transgressive criminology (causing harm rather than breaking the law). A wide range of state crimes may be considered.

This can include corruption, e.g. kleptocratic regimes robbing their populations, or human rights abuses, including very extreme acts such as the Rwandan genocide or ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

State crimes include (but are not restricted to):

  • Corruption
  • Discrimination
  • Funding terrorism
  • Funding organised crime
  • War crimes
  • Torture
  • Assassination
  • Genocide

Eugene McLaughlin (2001) divided these into four types of state crime:

  • crimes by the security and police forces
  • economic crimes
  • social and cultural crimes (like institutional racism) and
  • practical crimes (like corruption)

Spiral of Denial

Stan Cohen (1996) identified a spiral of denial that states use when accused of human rights abuses.


The first reaction is often to deny that anything occurred at all. This lasts until international bodies produce evidence that it did occur.


Once such evidence is provided, the next stage is often to question a particular version of events, instead claiming that others carried out the atrocity or the evidence pointed to something rather different occurring.


The final stage of the spiral of denial is to admit that the abuse occurred but to justify it. To suggest that it was the fault of the victims, or that there was no other way.

There is some similarity to Matza's techniques of neutralisation as referred to in functionalist explanations of crime, deviance, social order and social control. This can also be applied to state crimes.

Evaluating the Sociology of State Crimes

While Marxists look at all manner of harmful activity as being state crime, some question what the parameters are. This is the same issue raised elsewhere in relation to transgressive approaches to crime. For all the problems of limiting considerations of crime to transgressions of specific laws, opening it up to all harm becomes very unwieldy. While everyone would agree that torture or genocide are state crimes, some might question whether the absence of health and safety and equality legislation could be considered as such; yet Marxists and feminists might describe such measures as states causing harm.

Some worry that discourses of human rights can be ethnocentric, seeking to apply western norms to all societies. While the argument is often used to oppose international intervention in countries (such as Iraq, for example) it would be difficult to justify the argument when presented with specific examples: it does not seem acceptable to argue that women should have fewer rights in Saudi Arabia than in the UK just because those happen to be the local norms and values. The whole point of a discourse of human rights is to challenge and change such values.


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