Crime and Punishment: Holding States Accountable


  • Anthony F. Lang Jr.

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    • This paper originated at a workshop organized by Toni Erskine and it is to her that I owe the biggest debt in helping me to conceptualize the overall idea. Others who have helped in thinking through these issues include Nicholas Rengger, Kateri Carmola, Davood Moradian, Chris Brown, Cornelia Navari, Larry May, John Tessitore, Patrick Hayden, and Howard Adelman. Christian Barry made extremely helpful suggestions at various stages of revisions, as did the two anonymous reviewers for EIA.


Should states be held responsible and punished for violations of international law? The recent ruling by the International Court of Justice that Serbia cannot be held responsible for genocide in Bosnia reflects the predominant international legal position. But such a position leaves open the possibility that states or nonstate agents can never be held responsible for international crimes. This article argues that they can and should be. While most international ethicists and legal theorists reject the punishment of corporate entities such as states, this article argues that certain types of international violations can only be undertaken by states, and, as a result, states must bear the responsibility for them. Drawing on some neglected strands in international law and political theory, the article sketches a potential institutional framework for the punishment of state crimes, particularly genocide and aggression.