Today, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Alice Edwards, is presenting her annual report to the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly. The report focusses on an issue with massive implications but little international attention: the global production of and trade in law enforcement equipment which can be used to commit torture or other ill-treatment.

At present, thousands of companies across the globe are involved in manufacturing, promoting, or supplying law enforcement equipment to police and security forces in their own or other countries.  Police and other State officials use the equipment in lock-ups, prison systems, and even psychiatric centers and youth centers worldwide.

Some of that equipment – such as tear gas, pepper spray, handcuffs, or regular batons – can have a legitimate use, but is regularly misused for torture and other ill-treatment. Other tools including spiked batons, thumb cuffs, electric shock shields, and caged beds are inherently abusive: they “have no legitimate purpose except to inflict pain” and are “as horrifying as the racks and thumbscrews favored by torturers in medieval Europe,” the report said.

At the global level, no legally binding agreement governs the production of and trade in law enforcement equipment. The Special Rapporteur’s report recommends the creation of “a much-needed legally-binding instrument” to fill this legal gap, a goal that both civil society and some States within the 62-strong Alliance for Torture-Free trade have also advocated.

A Patchwork Regulatory System

States’ obligations to prohibit torture and other ill-treatment – both treaty-based (primarily, but not only, under the U.N. Convention against Torture) and as a matter of customary international law – require them to take proactive steps to prevent torture and other ill-treatment. Some States (the United States included) and the EU have adopted trade controls on certain types of law enforcement equipment to this end. But the regulation of the production and trade of these goods is piecemeal, and is non-existent in many States.

Unlike with conventional weapons – such as battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships, small arms and light weapons and related munitions – there are no legally binding global rules governing the production and trade in law enforcement equipment. Inherently abusive law enforcement equipment has not been identified and explicitly prohibited; nor are there global, human rights-based trade controls on those goods that can be used lawfully, but which are regularly abused.

While some States have argued that a Torture-Free Trade Treaty would be burdensome and an obstacle to free trade, a well-designed treaty could provide legal certainty and a level playing field that could aid States and manufacturers alike to promote responsible production and trade while preventing harm.

The Status Quo Facilitates Torture and Other Ill-Treatment

The absence of an effective global regime to regulate trade in law enforcement equipment is facilitating torture and other ill-treatment. Indeed, the harm caused by the misuse of such equipment, especially by law enforcement officials, is undeniable and well documented all over the world.

Some acts of torture or other ill-treatment using law enforcement equipment are hidden from view. In one case documented by Amnesty International in Xinjiang, China, an activist was left handcuffed in detention for nine days straight. But much of the abuse is public – protesters worldwide have faced volleys of tear gas grenades and rubber bullets and beatings with batons. In Chile, in October 2019, police fired over 100,000 rounds of rubberized buckshot at protesters, causing more than 440 eye injuries, 30 of which ended in eye loss.

Other cases involve inherently abusive equipment which States should ban. In Cambodia, a woman told Amnesty International how police tortured her with an electric shock baton: “They electrocute[d] me when they were questioning me, by shoving it into my side. I told them I just had a baby and asked them not to do it anymore [… it was] so painful and made me feel completely exhausted. I begged him not to do it again.”

The effects of torture and other forms of ill-treatment are profound and long-lasting. Survivors often remain captive to their traumatic past, enduring deep feelings of shame, self-blame, guilt, humiliation and loss of control. They often struggle with sleep disorders, anxiety, chronic pain, irritability, startle responses, suicidal ideation, and depression. Many report feeling “dead” inside and may describe themselves as if they are living outside their body, physically and emotionally numb, socially estranged, and profoundly alone.

What’s more, the effects of torture and other forms of ill-treatment are not limited to direct survivors themselves, but also impact their families and communities. And the effects can reverberate for generations.

As the Special Rapporteur notes, the unregulated trade in law enforcement equipment is also problematic for law enforcement officials who are themselves “human rights actors.” They must be confident that the equipment that they are issued is lawful, and if so, they are fully trained in using it in compliance with international law and standards on the use of force.

Moving Toward a Torture-Free Trade Treaty

The Special Rapporteur’s report is the culmination of a series of statements, studies, and resolutions in the U.N. system from the early 2000s onwards which have highlighted the obligations upon all States to regulate the trade in law-enforcement and other goods to prevent their use in torture and other ill-treatment. It builds on the EU’s pioneering Anti-Torture Regulation, which came into force in 2006, and is the only legally binding regional instrument prohibiting inherently abusive equipment and controlling the export and transit of a range of law enforcement equipment that can be misused for torture and other ill-treatment. Further guidelines to the control of the trade in law enforcement equipment have been developed by certain regional bodies, such as the Council of Europe and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  Volker Türk, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also publicly supported the creation of a new international torture-free trade treaty.

In September 2017, the EU, Argentina, and Mongolia launched the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade at the margins of the General Assembly in New York. The Alliance currently comprises 62 States pledging to “act together to further prevent, restrict and end trade” in goods used for torture, other ill-treatment.

The Special Rapporteur’s report also echoes growing calls from civil society: in January 2023, a network of over 30 NGOs working on torture prevention and police violence issued the Shoreditch Declaration, calling for “the strongest possible global treaty to put an end to the torture trade.” Since then, this network has grown to over 50 NGOs.

Concluding her report, the Special Rapporteur asks us to imagine a world where inherently abusive law enforcement equipment  “was no longer in the hands of untrained officers or ruthless leaders”; and where trade controls on other law enforcement equipment meant that it would no longer be used to “repress political opponents or citizens exercising their rights to assemble and express themselves,” or against “young people in detention, psychiatric patients, or the elderly.”

It is high time for all States to show leadership and support these appeals.

The first step is to back the adoption of a General Assembly resolution mandating the negotiation of a Torture-Free Trade Treaty. Only through such a legally binding treaty can States begin to close off a major legal gap and address harms caused by law enforcement weapons and equipment, wherever they are used. Not only would this support States’ existing obligation to prevent and eradicate the scourge of torture and other ill-treatment, but, as the Special Rapporteur writes at the end of her report, it would represent “a significant victory for human rights.”

IMAGE: Demonstrators run away from tear gas during a protest against Chilean President Sebastian Pinera’s government in Santiago, on Dec. 27, 2019. (Photo by CLAUDIO REYES/AFP via Getty Images)