Sociological Perspectives on State Crime

Last Updated on February 26, 2019 by Karl Thompson

You might like to read this post: What is State Crime? first of all!

The link between Poverty, Ethnic Conflict, Failed States and Crimes against Humanity

Take another look at Transparency Internationals Corruption Index and you’ll see there is  clear link between poverty and corruption, and war and conflict. Many of these countries are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, ethnic conflict, corruption and war which reinforce each other, and many of the worst state-crimes are done by nation states in times of civil-war.

According to Paul Collier, the problem starts with the fact that political leaders in developing countries don’t see politics in the same way that politicians in developed countries see politics – political office isn’t about public service – it is about getting as much money for yourself and the people that got you elected as possible. NB this is a rational response to gaining political power when the country is unstable and you don’t know how long you’re going to be in office for (because there are several other competitors who could potentially revolt against you).

In many cases, corruption will simply mean siphoning off public funds into private bank accounts, but the pursuit of profit by unethical governments can also mean harming citizens of countries – as with the Nigerian government allowing Shell to get away with polluting the Ogoni people’s lands in the Niger Delta, or the Ethiopian government displacing people when it leased an area the size of Wales to India.

In some other developing countries, political incumbents maintain power by the rule of terror – as is the case in many countries in Africa, most notably Zimbabwe and Sudan.
Such poor treatment of populations breeds the conditions for civil war and all of the various attendant war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as the recruitment of child soldiers and rape as a weapon of war, which go along with this. In extreme cases may result in terrorist organisations taking control – as in Afghanistan, Somalia and currently ISIS in Syria/ Iraq.


The problem with this view is that although there is a link between underdevelopment and state crime, some developed, or rapidly development nation states do appear very low down the corruption index – most notably Russia and China, two of the BRIC nations.

A Dependency Theorist (Marxist) Perspective on State Crime

From a Dependency point of view state crimes are not limited to developing countries. For a start, two of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity – Colonialism, which was basically the organised theft of resources through violence conquest, and slavery, were both a key part of the development of Capitalism in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The sheer brutality and death toll inflicted on the peoples of North and South America, Asia and Africa by the European colonisers was far worse than the suffering in the two World Wars or any war since.

Today, it is also clear that it isn’t just poor states which engage in state-crime. Take the USA for example – In 2003 it went to war in Iraq against UN conventions, and today it maintains Guantanamo Bay where it holds prisoners without trial. This view is explored in John Pilger’s excellent film ‘War on Democracy’ in which he points out that the USA, since the end of WW2 has been involved militarily in more than 50 countries, all of these illegal interventions. By international standards, the USA is one of the worst abusers of human rights in world history.

A further point here is that Western countries are happy to accept other states abusing human rights if they are either powerful or support Western interests (or both) – so we say nothing about the Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women or its public flogging of criminals, and nothing of China preventing freedom of speech.

In short, from a Dependency Perspective, state-crime against the powerless is a systematic part of development. It is a means whereby rich countries make themselves rich at the expense of poor ones, and rich people in both rich and poor countries, make themselves rich at the expense of the powerless.

Evaluation of the Dependency View

Functionalists argue that the laws put in place by Nation States represent the collective morality of the people, and that when the agents of the state (the police and the courts) police and punish criminal behaviour, this reinforces the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Thus Nation States and their agents of social control are the ‘good guys’, working to maintain law and order and punish those criminals who would disrupt this.

Moreover, Nation States with functioning governments are a crucial part of modern societies. In the SCLY3 Global Development Module we found that nearly all wealthy nations have massive public sectors where governments provides universal goods such as health care and education and to provide the infrastructure required for economic growth.

In short, Functionalism stresses that despite the history of Colonialism, the role of America in war crimes today, and the existence of some state crime in developed countries (the expenses scandal and institutionalised police racism in the UK for example) the average citizen comes to less harm with a stable state rather than without it and state crime isn’t really a significant problem in developed countries.

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