What is 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’. State crimes are committed by, or on behalf of nation states in order to achieve their policies.

So WHO can commit state crime?

According to the above definition anyone working for the State who engaged in illegal activities in order to achieve state policies.

The State is what the government runs – (one analogy is that governments are like the crew, the state is like the ship) – so this means any politician or civil servant doing anything deviant or illegal to pursue national policies in any sphere – be it health care, social welfare, education, military engagement, or crime control itself.

The inclusion of ‘state agencies’ means it is not just politicians or civil servants who can commit state crime, it is also public sector workers such as the armed forces or the police, or doctors, teachers, ANYONE who does anything illegal when working in an official context to achieve government policy, IF I’m reading the definition correctly (this is a tricky concept so I might not be!)

NB a teacher or a doctor stealing something from their workplace probably wouldn’t be an example of a state crime as this act wouldn’t help a nation state achieved its policies, and I’m not sure if a politician fiddling their expenses would count, because you could say EVERYTHING a politician does is related to achieving policy – MPs are the representation of the state, so anything deviant or illegal they do in office MIGHT count as a State Crime?

In the examples below HOWEVER, I’ll try to avoid individual crimes which individuals do for primarily for their own benefit, so as to ensure every example is as clear cut as can be, just be clear (ironically) that there are definitely grey areas in defining state crime, VERY large grey areas!

Some Examples of State Crime

State crimes include some of the WORST crimes in human history in terms of the harm done to individuals and societies, both in terms of the NUMBER of people affected and the suffering inflicted on those individuals.

Examples of state crimes include….

  • Genocide
  • War crimes
  • Torture
  • Funding organised crime and terrorist groups
  • Assassinations
  • Corruption
  • Discrimination

Types of State Crime

McLaughlin (2001) identifies four categories of state crime:

  1. • Crimes by security forces – e.g. genocide, torture, imprisonment without trial and disappearance of dissidents
  2. • Political Crimes – e.g. censorship or corruption
  3. • Economic crimes – e.g. violation of health and safety laws
  4. • Social and cultural crimes – e.g. institutional racism

These four categories allow us to be a little bit more analytical in studying State Crime – certainly to my mind the first category stands out as by far the more serious type of crime in terms of harm caused.

Below I provide some further examples of some of the crimes committed by States in the first two categories above. (This isn’t to say categories three and four aren’t worth studying, but there’s only so much time we can spend on this in an A-level course!)

Crimes of Security – Genocide

Genocide means any act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, such as Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group or Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (Source – teaching genocide –).

Three of the best known genocides include The Holocaust, The Cambodian Genocide and The Rwandan Genocide

The Holocaust was a genocide in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed about six million Jews. From 1941 to 1945, Jews were systematically murdered in one of the deadliest genocides in history. Every arm of Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the logistics and the carrying out of the genocide. Other victims of Nazi crimes included Romanis, ethnic Poles and other Slavs, Soviet POWs, communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the mentally and physically disabled. A network of about 42,500 facilities in Germany and German-occupied territories were used to concentrate victims for slave labour, mass murder, and other human rights abuses. Over 200,000 people are estimated to have been Holocaust perpetrators.

In Cambodia, a genocide was carried out by the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime led by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979 in which an estimated one and a half to three million people died. The KR had planned to create a form of agrarian socialism which was founded on the ideals of Stalinism and Maoism. The KR policies of forced relocation of the population from urban centres, torture, mass executions, use of forced labour, malnutrition, and disease led to the deaths of an estimated 25 percent of the total population (around 2 million people).

The Rwandan Genocide was a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority. During the approximate 100-day period from April 7 to mid-July 1994, an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, constituting as much as 70% of the Tutsi and 20% of Rwanda’s total population. The genocide was planned by members of the core political elite known as the akazu, many of whom occupied positions at top levels of the national government. Perpetrators came from the ranks of the Rwandan army, the National Police, government-backed militias and the Hutu civilian population.

Political Crimes – Corruption

Political corruption can take various forms, but the most common examples appear to be politicians siphoning public money off to their private bank accounts, unfairly granting government contracts in return for bribes and electoral fraud (vote rigging).


According to the Corruption Index put together by Transparency International there seems to be a correlation between corruption, war and conflict and poverty – Somalia, North Korea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq come out bottom of the Corruption Index, while the usual suspects – the Scandinavian countries plus Canada come out as the least corrupt.

To give you an example of how blatant corruption can get take the case of Teodoro Mbasogo who is the leader of Equatorial Guinea, one of the world’s poorest countries, but is also paradoxically one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state, with an estimated net worth of $600 million. For perspective, Barack Obama has a net worth of about $11.8 million.

Equatorial Guinea, despite having some of Africa’s largest oil reserves, has one of the most underdeveloped infrastructures and poorest populations in the world – so where does the money go?

The answer, at least from the outside, seems to be directly from the corporate accounts of Exxon Mobil and other oil companies straight into the pockets of Obiang and his family. In 2003, Obiang announced that to combat corruption in public service jobs, he would be taking full control of the national treasury. He then withdrew half a billion dollars (that’s billion with a B) in state money from the national treasury and deposited it into accounts in his own name at Riggs Bank, based in Washington D.C., effectively siphoning off all of the state’s money into his own pocket.


In addition to draining the country’s accounts, he’s also been implicated in various human rights abuses, electoral fraud, nepotism, and using security contractors to maintain control over the country.

Of course corruption doesn’t just happen in less developed countries – In 2009, the MP’s expenses scandal erupted in the UK, where numerous members of parliament and members of the house of Lords were found to be claiming expenses dishonestly. This resulted in 8 successful criminal prosecutions, any many more resignations, although most of the MPs got away with very minor punishments, as with Derek Conway MP who only received a 10 day suspension for paying his Son, Freddie, thousands of pounds for apparently doing nothing.

State Crime and Human Rights

One thing that has made it easier to hold states accountable is the emergence of the of the United Nations after the second world war, which developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – developed after world war two, designed to protect individual citizens from oppressive regimes – this is legally binding on member states.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains a list of freedoms which states are supposed to protect such as…

  • Article 4 – No one shall be held in slavery or servitude
  • Article 5 – No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Article 20 – Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association
  • Article 24 – Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable working hours and holidays with pay.

The Scale of State Crime/ Human Right’s Abuses

The fact that Nation State’s maintain power and control over large territories and populations mean that they have the potential to engage in large scale crimes which victimise extremely large numbers of people – for example the Cambodian Genocide in the 1970s is estimated to have wiped out 25% of the population.

McLaughlin, Eugene (2001) Political violence, terrorism and states of fear. In, Muncie, John and McLaughlin, Eugene (eds.) The Problem of Crime. Second Edition. London, GB. SAGE Publications. (LINK but no details!)

One thought on “What is State Crime?”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.