International crimes are the most extreme forms and manifestation of criminality. Remarkably enough criminologist, generally considered to be experts on crime, have until recently not studied international crimes. Research on the Holocaust and other genocides was mainly conducted by historians and so-called genocide scholars. Since a few years criminologists have gradually started to show an interest in international crimes. The criminology of international crimes however still needs to mature into a fully developed subfield of criminology. The most important tasks for criminologists studying international crimes are:


  • Define and conceptualize international crimes
  • Map and measure international crimes
  • Investigate the cause of international crimes
  • Define and analyze ways of dealing with international crimes
  • Develop preventive strategies in order to prevent international crimes


The first task would be to define and conceptualize international crimes such as genocide, torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity such as systematic rape and other sexual violations, but also closely related crimes such as terrorism, state terrorism and state crime. This can lead to the following questions: Are the legal definitions useful for criminological research or should they be supplemented? How can terrorism, state terrorism and state crime be defined? To what extent do international crimes differ from gross human rights violations or do these concepts overlap? What do the perpetrators want to achieve by these crimes? What are the functions of these crimes? What are the methods used? Is the distinction between torture and inhuman and cruel treatment relevant? The aim of this area of research is to get a clear idea of what international crimes are and what the concepts used in the research mean and signify.


A second task is to measure and map international crimes. In order to study the phenomenon of international crimes we need to know how and on what scale these crimes are committed, where they are committed and by whom. It is necessary to know who was victimized by the crimes and why. In order to do so it is also necessary to develop reliable modes and methods to measure these crimes. International crimes are sometimes committed during a war and thus clearly visible to the onlookers and bystanders. But wars are chaotic so how can you measure the number of victims and how do you categorize them? In some cases however they are committed in secrecy and not so easily discovered. Responsible states will often simply deny the facts. It is thus necessary to develop strategies on how to deal with all the difficulties of measurement. Reliable instruments would make useful comparisons between case studies possible.


A third step would be to investigate the causes of international crimes. Relevant questions would be: Who are the victims, why and in what way are they victimized? In what kind of conditions do these crimes take place? How can these crimes be explained? Who are the perpetrators and why do they commit these crimes? Which organizations play a role? What kinds of ideologies underlie these crimes? What is the role of the bystanders? Why do or don’t they act?  Can we predict these crimes? Can we prevent these crimes? How can we prevent these crimes? All these questions aim to develop explanatory theories and models which can help us analyse situations in which international crimes are committed. In order to do so the international community, states, organizations, groups and individuals such as the perpetrator, the bystander and the victim need to be analysed. Why do they act the way they do? What are the relevant interactions? Which dynamics and mechanism play a role? What are the facilitating factors and what are the inhibitory factors? Can they be changed or influenced and how?


A fourth task would be to define and analyse ways of dealing with international crimes. The aim is to identify and redefine concepts such as justice, post-conflict justice, transitional justice, restorative justice, international criminal justice, truth, reconciliation and reparation in relation to the international context. These concepts have been derived from national criminal law but the question needs to be posed whether the specific character and nature of international crimes requires a redefinition of these concepts in relation to these crimes. A further but closely related aim is to identify the goals and aims of international criminal justice and to search for measurement tools that can assess the effects of criminal prosecutions and truth and reconciliations commissions. Interesting research questions would be: How should states deal with a violent past? What is more important: democratization, truth-finding or justice? To what extent do these concepts relate to or exclude each other? Does the ordinary concept of justice fit situations of international crime? Are the national-based ordinary concepts of individual criminal responsibility and sentencing applicable to international crimes or should international criminal justice entail a completely different concept of justice? The ultimate aim of this research area would be to develop effective strategies, to put forward recommendations on when which strategy should be used and to redefine criminal law concepts.


A fifth task would be to develop preventive strategies, which could be used on various levels. A reliable early warning system needs to be established, which needs to be followed by effective early action. Players on various levels such as the international community, states, international and national organizations and groups as well as individual bystanders need to be activated. But what can they do? Which measures are effective, and which are not? When should bystanders interfere and how? What can and should an individual do? What can and should a state do? What can and should the international community do? The ultimate aim of this research area is to develop effective strategies that can be used to prevent and halt (ongoing) violations or to at least minimize their destructive effect. 




Core publications


  • Smeulers, A & R. Haveman (Eds.) (2008) Supranational Criminology: towards a criminology of international crimes, Antwerpen: Intersentia. (read more)
  • Haveman, R. & A. Smeulers (2008). Criminology in a state of denial: towards a criminology of international crimes: supranational criminology, in: A. Smeulers en R. Haveman (Eds.) Supranational criminology: towards a criminology of international crimes, Antwerpen: Intersentia, 3-26. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. & R. Haveman (2008). International crimes and criminology: an agenda for future research, in: A. Smeulers en R. Haveman (Eds.) Supranational criminology: towards a criminology of international crimes, Antwerpen: Intersentia, 487-512. (read more)

Dutch core publications

  • Haveman, R., A. Smeulers, S. Parmentier & C. de Poot (2011). De staat van de criminologie van international misdrijven, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie 53 (4), 287-309. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (2009). De meerwaarde van de criminologie van de internationale misdrijven, Strafblad, 421-430.
  • Smeulers, A. (2006). Criminologie in een state of denial? Ook internationale misdrijven vergen criminologische benadering, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie, 275-289. (read more)