When States Use Lethal Force Against their own Citizens: Changing Norms of Legitimate State Violence

Project: Research project

Project Details


1. Research plan summaryOnly since very recently has the legitimacy of state violence emerged as a topic of international debate; this especially against the backdrop of current social uprisings in North Africa and Libya in particular. The question whether the international community has a right or even duty to intervene, if necessary with military force, has highly polarized positions between proponents who base their arguments on a international responsibility to protect the population against its own government and adversaries who claim that the national sovereignty of states has priority and needs to be respected. The idea that the protection of fundamental human rights is itself a condition for national state sovereignty is indeed relatively new, and empirically the use of lethal force by state authorities against their own citizens is still a quite common phenomenon, not only in autocratic government systems such as Libya, but even in established and liberal democracies such as India and Mexico. Fights between the Naxalite/Maoist insurgents and special police personnel in Eastern and Central India have already claimed more than 7’000 lives (2002-2010) whereas most of them are civilians. Similarly, police and military operations against the drug cartels taking place in various Mexican states have already resulted in over 30’000 estimated deaths (2006-2010). Indeed it is actually within well established democracies that the puzzle of domestic state violence is most accentuated, given that on the one hand the government has the responsibility to provide protection to its citizens which might under certain circumstances also include the employment of coercive force, but at the same time liberal democracies are also expected to show a certain commitment with regard to the protection of the ‘right to life’ of the individual.In how far and under what circumstances the state has a right or a duty to carry out military or police actions involving potential lethal outcomes among its own citizens, has hardly been addressed so far by academic research. What is more, the global debate up to now has largely focused on the responsibility of the international community to intervene in large scale human rights violations, but hardly touched upon the question what role the concerned national state has in relation to its own citizens. These challenging questions are taken up by this project by critically exploring how legal and societal norms may determine the legitimacy of domestic state violence, and if these norms are possibly in the process of change. The overall goal of this study is hence to contribute to a better understanding of under what circumstances and for what purposes it is legitimate for state authorities to use lethal force against their own citizens. The answer to this difficult question however, will be left within the judgment of the domestic and international public, given that what is legitimate is largely determined by norms as produced in discursive practices among key decision makers within a given historical context. In order to study a possible norm change regarding the legitimacy of state violence, three ‘threshold events’ taking place between the 1970s and today will be studied in two empirical case studies (India and Mexico), examining different norm manifestations on a national and international level: Public discourses, policies, institutions and concrete state behavior on the ground. Methodologically, an interpretive discourse analysis based on grounded theory will be applied for the study of public discourses and policies. The institutional setup will be analyzed through the study of secondary literature and cross references in policy and legal documents, concrete state actions will be assessed through the analysis of secondary literature, media reporting and human rights country reports. Discourse analysis is particularly suited to examine how the role of the state in terms of its rights and duties, the identity of the ‘victim’ whose life is at stake and hence the legitimacy of the act itself (use of lethal force) is constructed and negotiated through interactions of key actors, including the national and international public. Special attention will be paid to legal and societal norms (particularly human rights) aimed at restricting state violence, plus the exceptions to these restrictions upon which political decision makers base their arguments in terms of legitimate purposes and legitimate means to reach these purposes.The overall hypothesis of this study is that norms determining the legitimate state violence are in the process of change, which does, however, not necessarily mean, that the state will completely abandon the use of lethal force against its own citizens one day. Rather, as the claims towards the state might have changed, so might have the arguments evoked by political decision makers to justify the use of force, moving from the right to protect national sovereignty (and government rule) to the duty to protect its own people against internal or external harm. The proposed project thus aims at improving the understanding of how legal and societal norms determine the legitimacy of a certain act, in this case the use of lethal force by state authorities against its own citizens.

Effective start/end date4/1/111/31/16


  • Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies: $16,857.00


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