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The Crime and Punishment of States

Written by  Gabriella Blum

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Why is it that we no longer punish states, or, at least, do not admit to doing so?

The moral rhetoric of “crime” and “punishment” of states has been excised from mainstream international law, and replaced with an amoral rhetoric of “threat” and “prevention.” Today, individuals alone are subject to international punishment, while states are subject only to preventive, regulatory, or enforcement measures. 

Through a historical survey of the shift from punishment to prevention in various spheres of international law, I argue that the preference for prevention has been motivated by a strong preference for peace over justice as the ultimate goal of the international system. Driving this belief, I suggest, is an array of considerations, correlating punishment with humiliation and revenge, fearing the effects of collective punishment, doubting the operation of punishment in a decentralized structure built around the principle of sovereign equality, and bemoaning the absence of an international institution to adjudicate the criminality of states. However, given existing practices under the paradigm of “prevention,” none of these considerations seems to justify a correlation between peaceful coexistence and an aversion to punishment. 

Further, the elimination of a punitive paradigm may implicate normative concerns, even accepting the preference for peace: in fact, a prevention-oriented framework may have its own distorted effects for international peace and security. Drawing on debates over preventive sanctions in U.S. domestic criminal law, I argue that even though prevention may sound like a less oppressive policy than punishment, it may in fact be far less constrained and more ruthless. At the same time, a preventive paradigm might be paralyzed from operating where there is a crime that does not immediately threaten other international actors. I demonstrate both possibilities using the contemporary debates over anticipatory self-defense and humanitarian intervention.