Publication Date10 Oct 2007
AuthorStephan Parmentier,Elmar G. M. Weitekamp
Stephan Parmentier and Elmar G. M. Weitekamp
Some images stick out in the collective memory of mankind and become
icons for a whole generation. Among the most forceful images of our
generation are the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the
Pentagon in Washington, on 11 September 2001. These attacks revealed a
new face of terrorism at the dawn of the 21st century, with new targets and
new means, intended to produce many indiscriminate victims and without
any concern for the offenders to save their own lives. Since the dramatic
events of September 2001, the academic literature has been flooded with
books, articles, and reports about terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and
new forms of violence, mostly from a viewpoint of political science and law.
Yet, one can wonder if the attack on the twin towers was fundamentally
different from the violent attacks on politicians and political targets by the
left-wing terrorist groups of the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany or the
Brigate Rosse in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s of the former century. These
groups also used violent means against specific targets, with the objective of
Crime and Human Rights
Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 9, 109–144
Copyright r2007 by Elsevier Ltd.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1521-6136/doi:10.1016/S1521-6136(07)09005-7
creating visibility for their cause, and with the death of many persons as a
result. And so was and still is the intention of the guerilla groups in
Colombia, Algeria and Sri Lanka, to mention just a few of the last decades.
Next to these examples of terrorist activity, old and new, the last quarter of
the 20th century has witnessed numerous situations of extreme violence that
have generated massive numbers of victims and that have often implicated
many perpetrators. The few examples all speak for themselves and have
turned the former century, even after the second world war, into one of the
bloodiest in human history: the killing fields in Cambodia, the genocides in
Guatemala and Rwanda, the ethnic cleansings in the former Yugoslavia, the
ethnic-religious conflicts in East-Timor, and the Apartheid regime in South
Africa. This is not to speak of the long-lasting conflict between Israelis and
Palestinians, the successive civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo,
the ongoing genocide in Darfur, and the instances of torture and
disappearances in many countries, which all continue on a daily basis
under our very eyes.
Given the sheer numbers and the deep seriousness of these crimes, and the
many offenders and victims implicated in them, it is extremely surprising
that they have hardly been the object of criminological research. Why is it
that criminology, the discipline par excellence that tries to describe and to
explain crimes and the behaviour of offenders and victims, has virtually paid
no attention to the crimes and the violations of human rights listed above?
And, because of their quantitative and qualitative importance, how can
these crimes become a central theme of criminological research and teaching
in the next decades? These are the two leading questions that have informed
this chapter and that will be dealt with in the next paragraphs. To do so, we
will first discuss a number of concepts that need clarification, most notably
those of political crimes and serious human rights violations; then, we turn
to the underwhelming attention for these crimes and these human rights
violations in criminology; finally, we try to sketch some areas for further
research for the discipline of criminology.
It is clear that the situations listed here all have their own histories and their
own specificities, and no single situation can be regarded as identical to
another. Despite these idiosyncrasies, however, all situations arguably have
at least one element in common, namely that they go beyond the micro level
of individuals and individual motivations, and that they are situated at the
meso level and the macro level of societies with many – if not all – cases
involving ideological motivations. For these specific reasons, they have often
been described as political crimes and as serious human rights violations.
The distinctions with common or traditional crimes on the one hand and
with ordinary human rights violations on the other hand are far from
semantic, but they are crucial, not only in the fields of law and politics but
also in that of criminology.
2.1. Political Crimes
It can be argued that the categorization of an act as a ‘‘political crime’’ bears
huge consequences in a variety of ways. First of all, the qualification is
relevant in criminal law, and more specifically in extradition law (Van den
Wyngaert, 1980). Several domestic legislations put severe restrictions on the
possibilities to extradite suspects of political crimes who have fled to another
country to their country of origin, for fear that the persons might be judged
and sentenced on political and not just legal grounds. These limitations are
also highlighted in an early treaty under the auspices of the Council of
Europe, namely the European Convention on Extradition of 1957 (Council
of Europe ETS 24). Its Article 3 prohibits the extradition to other states of
offenders in respect of political offences as determined by the requested
state, and even in respect of ordinary offences when it is believed that the
requesting state will prosecute or punish for other reasons (such as race,
religion, nationality or political opinion). In 1975, in the heyday of terrorist
groups operating in Europe, a protocol to the convention was added, in
which the scope of application of political offences was limited (Council of
Europe ETS 86). Article 1 of the Additional Protocol stipulates that political
offences are not considered to include crimes against humanity as defined in
the Genocide Convention of 1948 and in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Another area in which the distinction between common crimes and
political crimes is relevant is immigration law, and more particularly in
asylum law (Hathaway, 2005). The main legal source here is the Refugee
Convention of 1951, which prevents persons suspected of having committed
political crimes to obtain asylum in another country (United Nations, 1951).
Article 1, F (a) mentions that the convention does not apply to persons
having committed ‘‘a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against
Political Crimes and Serious Violations of Human Rights 111

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