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What is a State Crime?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 17, 2024
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A state crime is an act committed by a government, i.e., the state, or government agency that goes against the laws of that government, international law, or human rights as defined by the United Nations (UN) or other recognized codes of conduct. An action can also be considered a state crime if it harms the citizens of the country concerned or citizens of another country. Determining whether or not something fits into this category can be difficult because different governments, especially authoritarian governments, have the capability of making laws to suit their own needs. Acts of state-sponsored terrorism, genocide, and war crimes are considered some of the easiest crimes to decipher; environmental and financial crimes can be considerably more difficult to pinpoint.

Each government has its own set of laws that citizens are expected to follow; not doing so can result in fines, jail time and, in some countries, death. Government departments and organizations are put in place to make sure that citizens follow these laws. In many cases, however, there is no overseeing agency to ensure that the government itself follows its own rules. When it does not, the act is generally considered a state crime. This type of state crime is typically uncovered by media outlets or private investigations; in states where merely speaking against the government in power is unlawful, these crimes often go unnoticed. In countries where this is not the case, a government covering up of unlawful actions can be considered a crime itself.

When a government breaks an international law, the statutes that regulate how different countries interact with each other, it is considered a state crime. State-sponsored acts of terrorism and war crimes generally fit into this category. While the UN plays a significant role in ensuring that these laws are followed, ensuring that each and every country in the world does so can be incredibly difficult.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as defined by the UN in 1948, contains 30 articles detailing rights that each person in the world is born with. When a government does not afford its citizens these basic rights, it is considered a state crime. Genocide, defined as the planned killing of a specific ethnic, racial, religious or cultural group, as well as slavery, torture, and arbitrary detention are some of the most notable crimes committed by a government against its own people. Other than these human rights, any act committed by a state that harms its own citizens or citizens of other countries can be considered a state crime; this can include physical and financial harm as well as harm to the health of the citizens.

As with any crime, what is considered a state crime is often left up to the judgment of international organizations and international norms. If the majority of the world community considers the act of a government to be intentionally harmful to its people, it could be classified as a state crime, even if the act does not necessarily go against that government's laws, international law, or human rights. As the world progresses and technology allows for closer communication among countries, the definition of a state crime evolves; deciding who exactly has the authority to make this determination is a source of endless debate and question.

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Discussion Comments
By Terrificli — On Apr 15, 2014

@Melonlity -- another problem is that the larger nations in the United States are usually the ones called on to address such atrocities as state sponsored terrorism. Here's the problem with that -- what if one of those larger nations is, itself, found of violating international law?

Think of it this way. Let's say the United States is condemned by the United Nations for a war it is fighting. Who's going to organize and come after the U.S. to enforce something from the United Nations?

In other words, one could argue that larger nations with massive military forces are more or less immune from what the United Nations orders.

By Melonlity — On Apr 14, 2014

Another major issue in forming some sort of international law is sovereignty -- nations have the inherent right to operate in their own best interests without much regard to other countries. In other words, if a nation is found violating what the United Nations advances as human rights, what authority does that body have to enforce those violations without violating the generally recognized principal of sovereignty.

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