Sinja Graf

Jul 1, 2021

The Humanity of Universal Crime

Inclusion, Inequality, and Intervention in International Political Thought

Oxford University Press 2021

We often hear or read the phrase “crimes against humanity” when we learn about the Holocaust, or genocide in places like Rwanda or Serbia. And just as often, we don’t reflect on what this phrase means because it seems to simply encompass horrific actions by individuals or groups, directed towards specific ethnic, religious, or cultural groups. Sinja Graf’s new book, The Humanity of Universal Crime: Inclusion, Inequality, and Intervention in International Political Thought (Oxford UP, 2021), helps us to consider what this terminology actually means and how we can and should think about both the crimes themselves and the humanity of the victims and the perpetrators. As Graf explains in the book and in our conversation, once we start to unpack this term and our conceptualization of it, the complexity of truly understanding “universal crimes” becomes starkly clear. It is also clear that this is an understudied realm within contemporary political theory. The Humanity of Universal Crime seeks to explore this complexity and to provide a path to think about and consider both the idea itself and how it is has been used in politics and processes over the past centuries.

Graf knits together this exploration and understanding across disciplines, weaving in concepts from international law, political theory, colonial studies, and human rights. In the initial section of the book, John Locke’s engagement with this idea of universal crime is traced and explored to understand how Locke, who was so influential to the establishment of classical liberal thought and structures, saw the place and role of universal crime in context of the coercive power of the state. The next section of the book, which is both historical and theoretical, examines the way that colonialism created fragmentation within concepts of humanity, determining that there were those who are included under this umbrella of humanity, and, as a result, get to enjoy the protections and rights associated with being included. And there are those who were considered not fully human, and thus could be excluded from this umbrella category. As with so much else that was part of western imperial colonialism and 19th century eurocentrism, these distinctions fell along racial, religious, national, and ethnic lines. Graf’s research examines this normative fracturing of humanity during this period. The final section of The Humanity of Universal Crime is focused on more contemporary debates about distinctions between war and policing, especially in the context of the post-Cold War world. In this more recent period, structures and processes have been established and developed to legally respond to “crimes against humanity.” But Graf notes that, even so, these international systems do not necessarily have clear understandings of humanity – and how the perpetrators and the victims are both included under that umbrella category. The Humanity of Universal Crime is a keen investigation of these complex concepts and how they have been put into effect, and what we really understand about crimes against humanity and what we still need to consider.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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