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All Souls Blog: State Crime and Civil Activism

Penny Green is a Professor of Law and Globalisation at Queen Mary University of London. She has published extensively in numerous journals, occasionally writes for popular media outlets, and is both Founder and Director of the award-winning International State Crime Initiative. Over the last five years, a generous ESRC grant has facilitated her extensive, global field work in states experiencing or transitioning out of civil war or authoritarian rule – sometimes following genocide.

In the third seminar of the All Souls Lecture 2022, Penny Green framed and led a discussion centred around state crime, civil society, and international human rights. Drawing on a vast data set involving over 400 civil society activists based in countries experiencing or transitioning out of civil war or authoritarian rule, she presented the audience with a glimpse into oppositionist civil societies formed and moulded by oppressive state crime in Burma, Tunisia, and Turkey.


Thomas McElholm


Time to read

3 Minutes

Identifying State Crime

Penny Green opened by rethinking the definition of state crime. By doing this, she took the power to determine the legitimacy of a state’s action away from courts and gave it to civil society. She put forward that state crime should not be understood as a legal construct defined and punished by the domestic and international courts. This understanding fails to account for two factors. First, states rarely legislate to define their own practices as criminal but often weaponise their legislative powers to define oppositionist actions as criminal – rendering domestic courts unable to punish states for state crime. Second, those experiencing and opposing state crime do not view international courts as punitive bodies. Rather, they view international law and courts as a discursive tool that enables oppositionist civil societies to build popular, global support. To address these inadequacies, Penny Green and her colleagues developed the understanding that state crime is the process and practices by which a state violates social norms that may or may not reflect legal norms. This emphasis on social norms, process, and practice means that non-state bodies who influence, monitor, and resist state crime are key to determining legitimacy and therefore state crime. Together, these non-state groups form civil society.

Civil Society Opposing State Crime

Despite shared histories of state crime, civil society experiences distinctly different conditions in Burma, Turkey, and Tunisia yet uses strikingly similar tactics across all societies.

Each state is building itself into a monocultural, monolithic state that has zero tolerance for minorities whether it is Burmese Christians and Muslims who supposedly undermine the need of Burma’s majority ethnic group, or left-wing Turkish activists or Kurds who allegedly pose the greatest threat to the integrity of Turkish society. Essential to each state’s success is its ability to consolidate its domination over civil society because this silences the domestic voices that can delegitimise the states’ actions. Each state uses distinct methods. In Tunisia, the state simultaneously adopts a Human Rights lexicon to normalise gender equality whilst retaining patriarchal structures and nationalising civil society to suffocate opposition. Similarly, the Burmese state nationalises civil society but also incentivises oppositionists to turn informant by providing for their families then uses brutal military suppression to force oppositionist civil society into exile. Unlike Tunisia and Burma, Turkey permits an oppositionist civil society to exist but frustrates its attempts to organise by regularly blocking access to funds and periodically kidnapping or assassinating influential leaders to maintain an atmosphere of terror. Each state clearly identifies oppositionist civil society as a mortal threat to its own legitimacy, ability to govern, and monolithic evolution.

Across all these states, oppositionist civil societies continue to survive and reproduce themselves in a manner that is consistent. In Burma, Tunisia, and Turkey there is significant overlap between oppositionist civil society and the domestic charity sector that sustains the growth of oppositionist civil society. In all states, charitable organisations provide a politically neutral reason to assemble. This provides cover for networking between oppositionist groups, recruitment of likeminded individuals into oppositionist groups, and even the propagation of negotiation and election skills amongst Burmese agricultural workers under the guise of workshops intended to modernise agricultural techniques. To maintain the appearance of neutrality, oppositionists: erase cultural markers such as beards, avoid the memorisation of addresses so they cannot be given up under torture, and restrict political discussion to clandestine locations or innocuous meeting places such as tea houses, lawyers’ offices, and places of worship. When clandestine practices fail, the states’ punishment is swift and fatal. This can radicalise politically neutral members of the charity or the victim’s family, driving them towards oppositionist civil society, or it can fracture them entirely and destroy opposition. It is not easy to survive and reproduce but by maintaining strict discipline and relying solely on clandestine practices, oppositionist civil society survives and reproduces itself despite rampant state crime.

Civil Society’s Final Frontier

States have overwhelming resources that make it exceedingly difficult for clandestine pacifistic oppositionist civil society to prevent state crime. Inevitably, violent resistance is a tactic that must be considered. It presents both an ideological and practical issue for oppositionist civil society. Oppositionists look to the international stage for guidance, identifying mass uprising as the key ingredient to successful opposition in Egypt. However, it is rarely a binary choice between violence and non-violence. If possible oppositionist civil societies opt for non-violent approaches that challenge the illegitimacy of the laws – as exemplified by party political opposition operating in Turkey despite targeted but consistent oppression. It is only when extreme oppression and the seeming futility of change combine that opposition is driven to guerrilla warfare – as exemplified by non-violent Burmese opposition turning violent in response to total oppression. Violence is civil society’s final frontier: an uncomfortable but necessary companion to civil activism when it opposes the determined criminal state. 

Future Research

Future scholarship in this area must remain interdisciplinary as it is impossible to study tactics and actions without understanding the wider context. It could focus on exile communities’ efforts to persuade the international community to boycott criminal states, the impact of suppression on the families of oppositionists, and rhetorical role of international law.


Post by Thomas McElholm