Thalif Deen, United Nations, 01 March 2007
The torture of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and the wilful abuse and humiliation of terror suspects in the United States detention facility in Guantánamo Bay have been interpreted by human rights activists as violations of the 1987 UN Convention against Torture.
"No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture," says Article 2 of the Convention.
But human rights activists also argue that it is equally horrendous to export torture equipment to any country, including countries described as some of the world's most "repressive regimes" where prisoners and terror suspects are routinely beaten up or put on the rack.
According to the London-based Amnesty International (AI), the 27-member European Union is the world's first regional body to have adopted rules governing the trade in equipment used for torture and ill-treatment.
But the new regulations have far too many flaws, says Brian Wood, AI's research manager on the arms and security trade, and unless these flaws are addressed, the torture trade is set to continue.
In a study released on Tuesday, AI says that items synonymous with torture and executions, including the "sting stick", a baton with three-inch spikes, and hanging ropes used for executions in India, Sri Lanka and Trinidad and Tobago, are absent from the banned list in the EU regulations.
Moreover, EU companies and individuals are still able to broker deals in equipment easily used for torture outside EU territory.
"The regulations do not cover imports or trade of such equipment between EU member states in cases where there is documented evidence of state torture and ill-treatment," the study says.
The report also lists several items — including handcuffs used to hold prisoners in stress positions during interrogations in Guantánamo Bay, and electric batons used against Roma minorities by police in Slovakia and Bulgaria — that are not covered by the regulations.
The European regulations relating to trade in goods that could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment — which came into force in July last year — are described as "the first set of regulations of its kind to be adopted anywhere in the world."
And under European human rights law, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment are absolutely prohibited, as is capital punishment.
AI's list of "torture equipment" includes thumb screws, iron shackles, spiked batons or electro-shock belts attached to the human body. It argues that these items should be prohibited outright from trade or use.
AI also says that death-penalty equipment should be treated in the same category and banned outright, and has expressed concern about other "security" equipment in its various reports on this subject over the past 10 years, including its latest report.
Asked if the export of torture equipment is equally deplorable as the export of conventional arms to countries accused of human rights violations and torturing prisoners, Wood said: "Both are wrong when equipment or arms are used for serious human rights violations."
He said it is obviously wrong for any military, security or policing equipment to be transferred to a recipient if it is likely that the recipient will use it to violate human rights.
"And, importantly, it is contrary to international law for a state to authorise such exports if they know that these exports will be used to violate human rights, especially where the human rights violations are persistent and severe."
Asked how the US fares on the question of exporting torture equipment, Woods said that successive US governments have sought to ban the export of what they regard as "torture equipment" or equipment specially designed for torture and serious ill-treatment in crime-control contexts, including "belly chains".
He said prohibited items fall under regulations administered by the Commerce and State departments.
AI in the US has campaigned for that. "There is now an assumption of denial for the issuance of any export licences for such equipment," Wood said.
However, the policies used in administering US regulations are unnecessarily permissive, he pointed out. For example, it is permitted to export "leg cuffs", electro-shock belts and many types of portable hand-held electrical-shock stun devices, and there is no prohibition on exporting death-penalty equipment.
The AI study, titled European Union: Stopping the Trade in the Tools of Torture, points out that only 12 of the 27 EU member states have drafted national laws or implemented penalties in accordance with the regulations.
The 12 countries are Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden and Britain. In addition, AI was informed that Finland's existing national penalties will cover breaches of the regulation. — IPS