Research intelligence: Big Brother backlash

A website is shining the spotlight on state-perpetrated crime. Melanie McFadyean reports

June 10, 2010

Mention the study of state crime and people tend to ask what it entails. Put simply, it is a relatively new branch of criminology focusing on states as perpetrators of crime.

Now its profile is set to be raised by Penny Green, head of research at King's College London's School of Law, and Tony Ward, reader in law at the University of Hull, who have set up the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), a website with grand ambitions.

"The most serious crimes in the modern world are largely committed, instigated or condoned by governments and their officials: genocide, war crimes, torture and corruption," write Professor Green and Dr Ward on the multimedia site. However, state crime is under-acknowledged by popular and academic authors, they argue.

ISCI, a collaborative enterprise also involving the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative with support from the University of Ulster, aims to change this. It connects an international network of academics - anthropologists, lawyers, social scientists and criminologists - with policymakers, non-governmental organisations, human rights activists and victims of state crime. Unusually, the victims are to be involved in the research alongside academics.

Among ISCI's researchers are doctoral students and postdoctoral Fellows with a wide range of expertise. With grant money from King's, the plan is to pursue investigations in Albania, Cambodia, East Timor and Ivory Coast, among other places.

The initiative already has one researcher in Sierra Leone investigating the impact of international peace and justice initiatives, and another in southeast Turkey, who is examining the ways in which state agents have acted against Kurds in the region.

Kristian Lasslett, a Fellow with ISCI who lectures in criminology at Ulster, has spent five years researching conflict and development in Papua New Guinea. He will continue his research there looking at the relationship between states, mining corporations and crime.

Mr Lasslett said the initiative would "give researchers access without charge to primary data on state crime, in addition to a vast repository of writing by leading scholars in the field. Teachers could use its multimedia resources to add a new dimension to their reading lists and presentations."

Shining a light in dark places

As part of the project, the first database of all state-crime publications is being built, giving writers in the field greater exposure.

Funded by King's with support from Ulster, the website was designed and built by two of Professor Green's current students, Tom MacManus and Marta Iljadica, and former student Cian Murphy.

Its supporters include Noam Chomsky, who is an honorary Fellow of ISCI. He is also part of a multidisciplinary group, including staff from organisations such as Amnesty International and the Institute of Race Relations, who will contribute work to the site's repository.

Unusually in the academic context, ISCI has a political aim and is "ultimately directed at exposing, resisting and preventing state crime".

Victims and witnesses of state crime contacted by ISCI will be asked to contribute to the site. Professor Green plans to give digital recorders and cameras to witnesses and grass-roots organisations so that they can document and analyse state crime, as well as coordinating resistance to it.

Once the work is in full swing, the plan is for victims to report on events as they happen, communicating with researchers through the site.

The journalist Robert Fisk is due to launch statecrime.org on 14 June. Professor Green said Mr Fisk had been asked to get involved as someone who "writes tirelessly on state criminality, from the Armenian genocide and Israel's atrocities in the Palestinian occupied territories to the corruption and violence of Hamas and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"His approach is exactly that of ISCI - determining the nature of state crime by talking to the victims as well as the perpetrators."

The site also features work commissioned from New York-based photojournalist Yusuf Sayman - images of torture and forced migration in southeast Turkey and from northern Iraq's Mahmour refugee camp.

Encouraged by the speed with which ISCI is gathering momentum, Professor Green said she aimed to raise £1 million to expand the site, set up a project to analyse how civil society emerges in situations of widespread state repression and create a physical centre in London.

If the project succeeds, it will create opportunities for scholars and expose crimes that are rarely investigated.

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