When the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War were revealed, states pledged to ensure that this would never happen again. After WWII universal and inalienable human rights were enshrined in international law and are nowadays universally recognized as binding international rules. Many states however merely pay lip service to these rights and use political force and violence to subdue the political opposition or even entire population. According to a report of the World Health Organization (WHO, 2002), more than 191 million people died in the twentieth century alone due to forms and manifestations of collective violence. Such forms of violence are often politically motivated and initiated by political leaders who want to gain or maintain political power. The actual physical violence is committed in a social context in which the use of such violence is justified and legitimized by the initiators thereof. Victims are dehumanized and often labelled as dangerous enemies who have to be tortured and killed in order to protect the country. During periods of political turmoil extreme methods are considered necessary in order to protect a country, society or way of life. Propaganda is used to mobilize the people and the police and army are asked to restore law and order. In such circumstances the most extreme atrocities are sometimes committed by people who sincerely believe they are doing the right thing.
Each country in which international crimes have been committed needs to be studied as a unique case. Nevertheless there are a few common factors and features which can help us to understand why and when international crimes are committed. International crimes are often committed in states which are characterized by political turmoil. This can either be a war; a civil war or a political crisis. Leaders of states which use political violence are often authoritarian and support extreme and radical ideologies. Such ideologies often exclude certain groups within the population and justify the use of violence. Privileged minority groups within the society are often blamed for all misfortunes of that particular society and then attacked. The population is made to believe that with the exclusion or even extermination of a certain group the problems within the country would be solved. The media are often used to spread propaganda amongst the population which justifies the force and violence used.
In extreme cases the entire state bureaucracy can be changed into a huge extermination machine as was the case in Nazi Germany. Political leaders and power holders justify and legitimize the political measures, the state bureaucrats organize the violence and the foot soldiers physically execute the policy by maiming, torturing and killing their fellow citizens. They are the low ranking soldiers at the bottom of the state hierarchy and often have the legal obligation to obey the orders of their superiors. Because the state orders to commit the crimes which are supported by state authorities and propaganda machine many perpetrators believe they are doing the right thing.
- Smeulers, A. & S. van Niekerk (2009). Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror – a case against Donald Rumsfeld?, Crime, Law and Social Change 51(3-4), 327-349.
- Bijleveld, C., A. Morssinkhof, A. Smeulers (2009). Counting the countless – rape victimisation during the Rwandan genocide, International criminal justice review 19:2. 208-224.
- Smeulers, A. & L. Hoex (2010). Studying the Micro-dynamics of the Rwandan genocide, British Journal of Criminology, 50(3), 435-454. (read more)
- Smeulers, A. & F. Grünfeld (2011). International crimes and other gross human rights violations – a multi- and interdisciplinary textbook, Leiden: Brill – Martinus Nijhoff. (read more)
Core publications in Dutch:
- Weerdesteijn, M. & A. Smeulers (2011). Propaganda en paramilitairen – de normalisatie van geweld in het Servië van de jaren negentig, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie 53(4), 328-344.
- Smeulers, A. (2011). Standard operating procedure, in: F. Koenraadt & R. Wolleswinkel (Red.). Homo ludens en humaan strafrecht – funderen – vergelijken – onderwijzen, Den Haag: Boom Lemma Uitgevers, 257-270.
- Smeulers, A. (2012). In opdracht van de staat – gezagsgetrouwe criminelen en internationale misdrijven, Tilburg: prismaprint.