Publication Date10 Oct 2007
AuthorChris Cunneen
Chris Cunneen
Criminology, human rights and Indigenous peoples: how do we understand
the connections between these three terms? For too long the voices arguing
to connect criminology with human rights were isolated and marginalized.
At best, the possible links were seen as peripheral to the main concerns of
criminology. At worst, bringing a human rights understanding to definitions
of crime and criminal justice was seen as undermining criminology’s search
for scientific status. And as for Indigenous people? They were seen as part of
the ‘‘crime problem’’, a segment of the problem population whose
criminality needed explanation. Human rights apparently had nothing to
do with their offending behaviour. The problem for criminology was why
did so many Aboriginal people in places like Canada or Australia commit so
much crime?
However, over the last decade or so the intellectual terrain has shifted
significantly. Discourses on human rights have emerged in social science
disciplines, and now clearly provide one frame for how we analyse and
interpret the world. In addition the development of concepts like ‘‘state
crime’’ (which until recently had been largely ignored in criminology) has
breathed fresh life into understanding the relationship between the
Crime and Human Rights
Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 9, 239–261
Copyright r2007 by Elsevier Ltd.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1521-6136/doi:10.1016/S1521-6136(07)09010-0
development of modern political states and the violent and at times
genocidal dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Perhaps more importantly
for Indigenous people, human rights have emerged as a fundamental and
global political discourse and have provided a platform for the articulation
of specific Indigenous demands. This articulation has been achieved largely
through supranational bodies like the United Nations, and now finds
expression through organs like the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous
As a result of these developments we can see at least three strands to how
we might bring criminology to a more intellectually robust understanding of
Indigenous people and human rights. The first point is that Indigenous
people have been victims of profound historical injustices and abuses of
human rights which can be at least partially understood as state crime. The
second point is that contemporary justice systems are often seen in the
context of the abuse of Indigenous people’s human rights. The third strand
is an analysis of how claims to specific Indigenous rights impact on current
criminal justice processes, and how those claims might broaden our
understanding of reform and change.
We know the widespread role of state institutions, often sanctioned by law, as
the perpetrators of some of the greatest crimes against humanity. One
estimate is that modern political states have been responsible for the murder
of over 169 million people between 1900 and 1987, excluding deaths in wars,
judicial executions and the killing of armed opponents and criminals (Green &
Ward, 2004, p. 1). The modern political state has been integral to the
commission of genocide and other human rights abuses. Genocide and
modernity have gone hand in hand (Bauman, 1989), and the specific
modernity of genocide is that the vastness and totality of ‘‘final solutions’’
could only be pursued by the modern state with access to resources,
administrative capacities and law-making functions (Gellately & Kiernan,
2003, p. 4). This is at the heart of our contemporary understanding of state
crime. That genocide, the ‘‘crime of all crimes’’, should have been absent
from criminology for so long deserves full explanation in itself (Morrison,
2004). A part of the problem has been the positivist approaches in law and
criminology that define ‘‘crime’’ as a breach of state criminal law, and count

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