30/01/18
What have the actors, Daniel Craig, Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore all got in common? They have, of course, played Commander James Bond 007, a MI6 agent who is sent out into the world by Britain’s SIS (Secret Intelligent Service) to kill the enemies of the British State. A recent survey of the 26 Bond films found that Bond has killed or should we say ‘executed’ or ‘murdered’ 370 people on direct orders from his bosses despite the fact that Britain no longer practices the death penalty. In essence, James Bond is a state-sponsored killer.

Now you might say, quite rightly, that Bond is a fictional character but did you know that the British State does in fact employ people to kill suspected terrorists without trial? For example, it was announced in 2017 by the then Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, that British RAF personnel would be given medals for conducting remote-controlled airstrikes using drones from bases in Lincolnshire and Nevada as part of Operation Shader which aimed to kill members of ISIS, especially British members such as Jihadi John. Moreover it has been estimated that in only one month – March 2017- that almost 1000 civilian non-combatants, mainly women and children had been killed across Syria and Iraq by Russian air-strikes and US/British drone strikes.

This blog is going to focus on state crimes. However, before we can continue we need to decide on a definition of the ‘State’. I’m going to use the one supplied by Green and Ward (2017), that is ‘ an organisation that both exercises , if not a monopoly, at least dominance over the use of organised force within some significant territory and which lays claim to political legitimacy’. If we use this criteria, so-called ‘Islamic State’ qualifies as a state.

State crime can be defined as ‘organisational deviance by state agencies (for example, leaders, politicians, civil servants, the army, the secret services, soldiers, pilots, the police and so on) which violate human rights. Using this definition, James Bond and pilots of remotely controlled drones are guilty of state crimes as are members of ISIS.


Green and Ward divide state crimes into broad categories. Firstly, the crime of genocide (which refers to the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group), and ethnic cleansing (which refers to the mass expulsion or massacre of members of one ethnic or religious group in an area by those of another). For example, the Holocaust which occurred during the Second World War involved the mass transportation of European Jews, Slavs, Romanies, and so on to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Belsen in which most were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime (as part of the so-called ‘Final Solution’). Another example of genocide and ethnic cleansing occurred during the civil war that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s when the Serbian State aimed to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of its Muslim inhabitants between 1992 and 1995. This culminated in the Sbrenica massacre in 1995 in which the Serb militia executed 8000 Bosnian Muslims, mainly men and boys over a period of three days. Another example of genocide is the 1994 massacre of 800,000 Rwandans, mainly members of the Tutsi tribe by members of the Hutu tribe. In 2003 the Sudanese army killed nearly 300,000 people in the Darfur region of Sudan. A current example of genocide and ethnic cleansing is Myanmar’s repression of the Muslim Rohingya community. It is estimated that at least 120,000 Rohingya people have been forced to cross the border into Bangladesh and that hundreds have been killed by the Myanmar army.

A second category of state crime are ‘war crimes’, especially massacres of non-combatant civiians and mass rapes of the civilian population usually committed by invading armies or armies of occupation. ISIS fighters, for example, became notorious for the rape and forced marriage of non-Muslim women who were forcibly removed from communities such as the Yazidi. Other examples of war crimes include the My Lai massacre. During the Vietnam war a platoon of American soldiers led by Lieutenant William Calley murdered between 300-500 Vietnamese villagers including women and children in 1968. During World War 2, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France was destroyed, when 642 of its inhabitants, including women and children, were massacred by a German Waffen-SS company in reprisal for a French Resistance attack on German troops. In June 1942, 184 males aged 15 or over who lived in the Czech village of Lidice were executed and 184 women and 88 children were deported to concentration camps where they were gassed to death. The village was then totally destroyed. These actions were the result of direct orders from Hitler himself who decided this would be a legitimate reprisal for the assassination of the German commander in the region. In 1972 British troops shot 28 unarmed civilians, killing 15 of them, during a peaceful protest march against internment in Londonderry or Derry’. This incident became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

Rummel has calculated that between 1900 and 1999 that 262 million people were murdered by the nation-State to which they belonged. 85 per cent of these murders occurred in China under Mao, the USSR under Stalin and Germany under Hitler. These state killing continue today. Since 2001, in Syria there have been 181,000 deaths, 95 per cent of these have been victims of President Bashar Al Assad’s forces. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2000 some 310,000 were killed across the world as a result of war-related violence.

Green and Ward also identify torture as a state crime. This is probably the most common state crime. For example, a 2014 Amnesty International report stated that torture and interrogation techniques such as waterboarding are still commonly used in 141countries. In 2011, a two-year study by the U.S. independent group The Constitution Project concluded that it was "indisputable" that U.S. forces had employed torture as well as "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" in many interrogations. The Americans have been heavily criticised for their use of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in which suspected Muslim terrorists have been kept for years without trial. The Americans have also been criticised for ‘extraordinary rendering’ which involves the illegal kidnap of terrorist suspects in order to take them to ‘black sites’ maintained by the CIA in countries sympathetic to the USA to be interrogated and tortured. Before you get too smug be aware that the UK has been found guilty of using torture on terrorist suspects in Kenya in the 1950s and in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

Another aspect of state crime is violence committed by domestic police forces. In the UK, for example, there have been about 1500 deaths in police custody since 1990, and many of the victims have come from BAME backgrounds. Moreover, in the UK, 14 people have been shot dead by the police since 2012. In the USA, police and law enforcement officials have killed at least 223 Black Americans since 2016. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in both the USA and UK has been the result of concerns about such police killings. In an extraordinary confession, the current President of the Phillipines, Rodrigo Duterte admitted in 2016 that he had personally killed criminal suspects when he was the mayor of Davao when he accompanied the police on patrols. He ran this southern city for two decades, earning a reputation for cutting crime, but also criticism for allegedly supporting death squads.

All of the state crimes listed so far involve violence but there are others which do not necessarily involve killing such as the imprisonment of opposition leaders or human rights activists on trumped up or false charges. Opposition leaders in Russia find that President Putin has a tendency to use this method to silence his critics.

Another state crime identified by Green and Ward is ‘grand corruption’ which involves the organised plunder of national resources and wealth by the ruling elite. Some leaders and politicians have proved very corrupt and have stolen millions from their country's treasury and banks. Recent sociological research has focused on 'kleptocracies - governments or states in which those in power exploit national resources and steal from state revenues and banks. Examples include President Marcos of The Phillipines who allegedly stole between $5 billion and $10 billion while in office. His wife, Imelda, left behind at least 1,220 pairs of shoes when she and her husband fled the country during a 1986 uprising. When General Somoza fled Nicaragua in 1979, it was reported that he pocketed 90 per cent of the foreign aid given to Nicaragua, emptied the bank vaults of the national bank and left Nicaragua with a $1.6 billion foreign debt. In 2014, the US Department of Justice froze more than $458 million hidden in bank accounts around the world by the former Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha and his fellow-conspirators. Abacha, who ruled Nigeria for five years after a 1993 coup, is believed to have stolen $4.3bn while in office. However, corruption may be a fact of life in many developing countries as state officials such as police and customs officers as well as civil servants take bribes from civilians or foreign corporations. In 2018 dozens of Saudi princes and billionaires were taken into custody by the Saudi authorities on suspicion of corruption after they were suspected of taking huge bribes in return for confirming defence contracts. Both Russia and Italy have been recently described as Mafia-states by Misha Glenny for the degree of corruption that is thought to be endemic in these societies. In 2017 Luke Harding, a respected journalist who has investigated the Russian State’s relationship with corruption speculated that as a result of his vast power Vladimir Putin controls vast interests in Russian oil and gas companies and consequently may secretly be the richest man in the world. The UK is not immune to such corruption. In 2009 several Members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords were caught up in an expenses scandal. Some were taken to court and actually fined or imprisoned for fiddling their expenses.

Other criminologists believe that definitions of state crimes should be extended to include land grabbing, forced evictions and the avoidable effects of many natural disasters. Schwendinger argues that any violation by governments of human rights such as the right to free speech, the right to protest, the right to liberty, the right to be gay or transgender, the right to freely move around a country, the right to join a trade union and so on should be defined as state crime. However, Schwendinger’s definition is regarded as problematic because there is no universal agreement as to what should constitute a ‘human right’. For example, should people have a right not to be poor or to have a free education? Some critics argue that there is a danger that the list of so-called human rights could become endless whilst others claim some claims to human rights could potentially produce further deviance, for example, the right to religious expression could lead to religious leaders demanding that other human rights, for example, freedom of sexual expression, be repealed, withdrawn or even violated.

However, we define state crime, Amnesty International claim state crime is ubiquitous. In 2014, there were human rights violations in 160 of the world’s 196 states. Torture was documented in 131 of them.

It is important to understand that little state crime comes to public attention and even less becomes part of the criminal statistics. In order to understand why, you need to consider the following. Firstly, those who run the State often have the power to define what counts as a crime. For example, at the end of the Second World War, dozens of German and Japanese political and military leaders were put on trial and executed by the victorious Allies for war crimes. However imagine what might have happened to British leaders had Germany won the War. The power to define who are state criminals is therefore in the hands of the victors. Secondly, research by McManus documents how the State and corporations mobilise significant legal, financial and human resources to conceal their illicit practices from public scrutiny. They more often than not define their own actions as legitimate and the actions of less powerful groups as ‘terrorist’ or ‘criminal’. They may, for example, interpret legitimate protests and uprisings as ‘riots’ which justifies, at least in their own minds using paramilitary force on the streets. In other words, then, the ‘criminal’ label is often employed by the State as a weapon against those sections of society which challenge political elites and their corporate allies.
Thirdly, States also have the legal power to cover up their crimes and the power to make sure that the media do not discuss or criticise state activities. They will use legislation such as the Official Secrets Act and B-notices to gag and silence journalists. In some countries, journalists may be imprisoned and even assassinated.
Fourthly, States and their agents or employees often ‘subscribe to a culture of denial’ – this may involve them denying that a criminal incident actually took place or if they do admit that it occurred, they might say that it was justifiable because it was done in order to protect national security. They may even admit that they are sorry that there was ‘collateral damage’ which essentially means innocent people were killed. However state officials often justify these deaths by suggesting you can’t help but break eggs if you are making an omelette.
Agents of the state might also justify their actions by saying 'they were only obeying orders' as Lieutenant William Calley claimed with regard to the My Lai massacre. All of these state activities mean that state crime is largely invisible to the majority of us.

There are lots of examples of state crimes mentioned in this blog which are worth researching on the internet. There are several films that cover the events described in Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam and Northern Ireland. If you are wondering what torture is like, I would recommend you watch the You Tube video of the journalist, Christopher Hitchens volunteering to be waterboarded on an American chat show.