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Introducing: State crime and resistance

This week's theme concentrates not only on state crime but on the extraordinary variety of courageous civil society resistance generated by state violence and corruption.

Fatima Kanji Tony Ward Kristian Lasslett Thomas MacManus Penny Green Alicia de la Cour Venning
12 December 2014

The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) is based at Queen Mary, University of London and partnered with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the University of Hull and the University of Ulster. ISCI is the world’s leading centre for state crime scholarship. We are committed to interdisciplinary and emancipatory research and work through an extensive international network of scholars and civil society activists. We work in and around the UK, Turkey, Tunisia, Burma, Kenya, Iraq, Colombia, Palestine/Israel, Algeria, the Sahara and Papua New Guinea.

This week we want to share with you a sample of our work – not only on state crime but on the extraordinary variety of courageous civil society resistance generated by state violence and corruption. Please visit our award nominated website to learn more about ISCI’s work.  This week’s special feature, ‘State Crime and Resistance’ is edited by Penny Green with Tony Ward, Kristian Lasslett, Fatima Kanji, Thomas MacManus and Alicia de la Cour Venning, from openDemocracy’s new partnership with the International State Crime Initiative.

This week’s guest theme: State crime and resistance

State crimes are generally easy to recognise: genocide, war crimes, torture, police violence, and ‘grand corruption’ – the organised plunder of national resources by a ruling elite. But just how state crime should be defined is nevertheless a controversial question. The articles published in this openDemocracy guest week reflect ISCI’s preferred definition which captures the sometimes veiled and not always legally proscribed deviance of the state: state organisational deviance involving the violation of human rights.

The horrors commited by states confront us daily: the on-going genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region; Mugabe’s reign of terror in Zimbabwe; the Israeli bombing of Gaza this summer; the US torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib; the brutality of Ben Ali’s Tunisian police state; the terror of Gadaffi’s dictatorship and the corrupt enrichment of the Egyptian ruling elite.

The scale of state killing and systematic theft by ruling elites is staggering and the organised and planned criminality of governments has resulted in immeasurable pain and suffering. Yet the shroud of secrecy, official resistance and an ideological/juridical culture which confines hegemonic understandings of criminality to the actions of the powerless results in an absence of state crime statistics, a misplaced sense of public fear, and a resistance within legal and judicial processes to invoke the state as perpetrator. Even for those crimes acknowledged in international law – torture, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – governments have shown at best only a selective interest in monitoring and measuring.

We must therefore rely on civil society in all its forms - with its myriad strategies of resistance to state violence and corruption - to identify, define, expose and sanction state crime.

We started the week in pre-revolutionary Tunisia with Penny Green’s examination of the central role of civil society in defining the legitimacy of state behavior. Her article focuses on the fight against state corruption by a group of phosphate mining widows in the Gafsa Mining Basin.

Meanwhile, Richard Falk raised the challenge of an international criminal law system which does not allow for a geopolitical veto – impossible under the present global regime where super powers act with impunity, subject only to the restraints of their own political interests. 

Our Tuesday articles follow this theme of western state impunity. Jeremy Keenan exposes how legitimate forms of resistance are being criminalized through the global war on terror. Resistance movements of the marginalized, particularly in places like the Sahel, are re-defined as terrorist and as a consequence become ever more marginalized, terrorized and impoverished. 

As the US government attempts to whitewash the findings of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report into the CIA’s interrogation and detention programmes released last week, Peter Finn and Sam Raphael reveal the complicity of the UK government in the horrors of waterboarding and other forms of torture following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The revelations have only been brought to light through the work of human rights organisations like the Rendition Project.

On Wednesday, continuing with the theme of counter-terrorism violence, Tony Ward reported on the brutality and extra-judicial killings perpetrated by Kenya’s Anti Terrorist Police in predominantly Muslim Mombasa and coastal strip and provides an insight into civil society resistance to growing state brutality. Following on Kristian Lasslett lay bare the state corporate criminality which flourishes in the ‘fog of peace-making’. Drawing on his own research in post conflict Bougainville, he shows that state corporate crime is able to flourish precisely because peace processes demand positive investment environments - central to which is the containment and marginalization of protest against crimes of the powerful.

Thursday’s articles all addressed the state crimes of Israel, and Palestinian attempts to restore humanity and dignity to their lives. Rinad Abdulla details the horrors and discrimination of living under Israeli occupation then critically focuses on resistance to the colonial settler project. In doing so she charges the Palestinian Authority with corruption and collaboration and argues that unless the PA is challenged the Palestinian resistance will be fatally weakened. Resistance she argues must challenge not only the occupation and apartheid structures which deny Palestinians equal rights but it must also bring to the fore the Right of Return.

Scarlett Kutyla focuses not only on Israel’s project of Palestinian land theft and the myriad forms of institutionalized discrimination enshrined in the apartheid regime but on the daily acts of courage and resistance that Palestinians engage in.

Amelia Smith reveals the central role of law, both military and civilian in the construction of Israel’s exclusionary policies. Its commitment to law however does not include international law which it flagrantly disregards. She also shows how Israel’s system of formal and informal discrimination penetrates all aspects of Palestinian life, from segregated housing in the West Bank to separate roads, schools and hospitals.  

Friday offered the first of two articles on creative forms of resistance to some of the world’s worst state crimes. Thomas MacManus details his observations of Colombia’s remarkable Peace Community. Here in the rural settlements of northern Colombia, local people have built a community independent of the repressive state and brutal paramilitaries on the one side and violent guerrillas on the other. Thomas’s research also reveals the importance and power of international solidarity.

Finally Elliot Goat writes of the powerful ‘escrache’ movement in Argentina and Spain – an outing movement of great effect designed originally to challenge the impunity of former Argentinian junta members for their role in disappearances and murders but now used in Spain to resist the impunity of corporate and political actors responsible for the country’s economic crisis.

A new programme of research and related activism

The work of ISCI continues to challenge traditional conceptualisations of crime, power and resistance through a programme of rigorous scholarship and civil society interventions. It is essential that our research informs a broader political agenda of social change – change driven, not by powerful political and juridical elites, but by the resistance of organized civil society against the corrupt and violent structures of government and corporation.

We are currently moving forward with a new programme of research and related activism which will include major comparative work on development-induced forced evictions; the building of a UK state crime archive; an investigation of the role of PR companies in manufacturing state crime denial; and an examination of the role of constitutionalism in state crime resistance.

We finish this guide by offering you a snapshot of this work and hope you will visit statecrime.org to follow its development:

Development-induced displacement is an increasingly widespread phenomenon and in contrast with other types of internal displacement – such as movement driven by conflict, natural disasters, or climate change – there is less recognition of the brutality, causes or consequences of the displacement caused directly or indirectly by neo-liberal ‘development’ interventions.

Indeed, despite the fact that an estimated 15 million people each year are victims of these interventions, the claims of communities to land resources, and the socio-economic harms created by land dispossession, are virtually neglected in today’s universe of human rights protections. Development-induced displacement is an especially significant and overlooked criminal phenomenon that is underpinned by state-corporate violence and corruption, ranging from the destruction of property to, in some cases, murder of those resisting relocation, resettlement, and removal (evictions). We have begun work on a broad comparative study exploring the illicit processes driving land dispossession, forced relocation, resettlement or removal of people from their homes. The research will, in fine-grained detail, explore the mechanics of eviction, the resistance it engenders, and how different configurations of state-power shape the regimes of predatory capital accumulation that drive these criminal events.

The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) is also seeking to build the first online, interactive ‘State Crime Archive’ (SCA), exposing, analysing and challenging British state violence (‘state crime’) and UK corporate complicity in state violence abroad (‘corporate crime’). The SCA will be dedicated to the collation, indexing, and publication of significant amounts of primary documentation, as well as associated original analysis designed to maximise the impact of this work. Although situated within a wider academic-led project to expose and explain such crimes, the central aim of this archive will be to bring to bear academic expertise in the field specifically in order to assist campaigning, advocacy, investigative journalism and legal challenges relating to the abusive use of state and corporate power.

This archive will provide tools for practitioners in the NGO, legal and journalism sectors. It will also have a distinct public education function, providing students and members of the public with the factual material and supporting background context that will enable them to both challenge the status quo, and to suggest alternative, more socially just, structures of power. Through illuminating the cultures, organisational mechanisms, practices, and decisions that underpin state violence and corporate complicity, this project aims to appropriate the power of shaming in a restorative manner to promote radical reforms that buttress non-violent solutions to contention and conflict.

Thomas MacManus will be turning his attention to the role of public relations corporation in state crime. As Stan Cohen observed civil society censure of state and state-corporate deviance triggers in states a discourse of defence, denial and neutralisation or ‘apologia’. This process of labelling and counter-labelling of crime is conducted in the public sphere, and has become increasingly contested in recent decades as PR companies are routinely employed by governments for ‘crisis management’, i.e. to deal with any potentially damaging public reaction to perceived state deviance or crime.

Building upon Cohen’s work on ‘denial,’ this study will explore and describe the interrelationship between the unveiling of state and state-corporate crime by civil society and the counter-campaigning and state crime denial of PR firms on behalf of states. This study is unique in bringing PR firms into the frame of state crime scholarship for the very first time.

Another analytical challenge for ISCI researchers relates to our tendency to de-centre law – to stress that “crime” is not a legal category but rather a shorthand for conduct that attracts some form of organised public censure. Such censure might take the form of a mass protest rather than a court action. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that in some of the countries we study, the law is central to the way that governmental wrongdoing is defined and resisted. Beautifully democratic constitutions, as in Colombia, Kenya and Papua and New Guinea, can coexist with decidedly ugly governmental practices. It is tempting to dismiss such constitutions as purely cosmetic, like the splendid Soviet constitution of 1936. But for many in civil society, the constitution offers a model of how things ought to be and a seemingly unanswerable argument for change.

One worker for the Kenyan group InformAction (see “Violence and Civil Society in the Kenyan Coast”) told us that in her discussions with local communities she tells the avid mobile phone users in the audience, “It’s easy – just google Constitution of Kenya 2010” – and they will have the constitution on their phones. Is a digital copy of the Bill of Rights a handier weapon than a stone or a banner? Or is constitutionalism a trap – a diversion from more effective forms of protest?

Please watch this space for some fascinating debates to come...

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