Establishing effective controls on the use and trade in torture technologies
The Omega Research Foundation recently completed a large-scale Action, ‘Establishing effective controls on the use of and trade in torture technologies, as a tool to fight torture and support remedy and reparation’, part-funded by EIDHR (the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights). Omega and partners are also grateful for the financial support received from the Oak Foundation, Sigrid Rausing Trust, Open Society, MFA Norway, DFATD Canada, and the Ford Foundation.
For this project, Omega partnered with Justiça Global (Brazil), the Institute for Security Studies (ISS, South Africa - for years 1 and 2), the Legal Resources Centre (LRC, South Africa), as well as KontraS in Indonesia, and Amnesty International.
The project was designed to contribute to a reduction in torture and ill-treatment. While this aim was ambitious and wide-reaching, work undertaken through the project has contributed to the prevention of torture and has supported the international torture prevention community. Successes and changes achieved – including those not envisaged when we began the project – continue beyond the life of the project.
Like all human rights work, aspects of this project have been shaped – in a range of ways, both positive and negative – by external factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the shrinking space for human rights, the formation of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Responding to these external factors has strengthened our work.
The EIDHR project was centered around three main themes, which have been shown to be deeply interconnected, and are discussed in more depth below:
Outcome 1 - Law enforcement and prison institutions adopt human rights-based standards relating to equipment and use of force in Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia.
Outcome 2 - Legislative and normative processes are better aligned with the principles of Torture Trade Law at international and regional levels (African region, Council of Europe region, Latin American region).
Outcome 3 - Survivors of torture in South Africa obtain comprehensive remedy and reparation.
Strong international standards facilitate torture prevention locally. We worked closely with colleagues to develop new international standards on the use of ‘less lethal’ weapons, including the United Nations Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement. The impact from this work continues beyond the life of the project.
We provided training to key actors around the world, including torture monitors, civil society, legal professionals, & security personnel to increase knowledge of different types of tools of torture, as well as of distinctions between lawful/unlawful use of force. This training has resulted in positive changes in practices.
At the same time, publications and policies reflecting human rights-based use of force standards demonstrate international, regional, and national-level awareness of the importance of such standards.
A direct example of this from our work in Brazil is the publication and promotion of the Handbook on Handcuffs and Other Instruments of Restraint in Court Hearings, which led to the adoption of practices that resulted in a reduction in routine use of instruments of restraint during custody hearings in Brazil. For example, judges in three states who previously routinely applied restraints to defendants now do so very seldomly. Unnecessary use of restraints can amount to ill-treatment; as well as reducing the unnecessary use of instruments of restraint in the courtroom, implementation of the Handbook also enables arrestees to freely describe alleged acts of torture and ill-treatment before a judge, facilitating accountability and upholding the presumption of innocence.
The Handbook can be accessed in English and Portuguese here.
The progress made in Brazil was particularly notable under this Outcome, with the breadth and reach of the processes working towards the adoption of human rights-based standards much greater than anticipated.
Our work has focused on both international- and regional-level efforts to address the trade in tools of torture. We focus on torture trade controls as a key aspect of torture prevention, as it makes it more difficult for those who are, or would be, involved in torture and ill-treatment to access specialist equipment to facilitate such abuse.
We’re proud to have helped drive the establishment of an international-level process at the UN to develop controls on the torture trade (notably through the United Nations General Assembly Resolution, Secretary General’s Report, and the establishment of the UN group of governmental experts). The process draws on long-term advocacy efforts by Omega and our colleagues at Amnesty International, as well as more recently with the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. We have worked with Amnesty to support torture trade processes with technical information, policy and legal proposals, as well as advocacy and lobbying.
This promises to be a key area of future development, with a real chance of creating change on an international level. More information on the UN process can be found on our dedicated webpage.
Developments in regional-level processes also exceeded expectations. Progress has been made at the African level (the Robben Island Guidelines and in the form of a Resolution at the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights), as well as in the broader European region (the Ministerial Council Decision at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Council of Europe).
Our investigations uncovered and raised awareness of the torture trade in the Council of Europe region, for example, and we have worked with Amnesty to successfully advocate for a comprehensive Committee of Ministers Recommendation addressing the trade. We then worked with Amnesty and CoE Member States and structures to promote effective implementation of this Recommendation throughout the CoE.
This outcome was centred on South Africa, although relevant materials were shared with colleagues in Indonesia and Brazil. Broader lessons learnt through this work can also be applied in other States. Work under the project linked legal professionals, psychosocial practitioners, community and human rights activists, and others, providing training on identifying and reporting on the tools of torture.
In the long term, combining psychosocial support alongside legal support and the legal process (criminal or civil), can help people to exercise their right to comprehensive remedy and rehabilitation.
The South African context is particularly challenging. Torture is widespread in South Africa, police act with impunity, and the criminal offence of torture has never been successfully prosecuted. Survivors are dissuaded by multiple hurdles and often settle for damages for ‘assault’. As a result, only a small number of people were eligible during the life of this specific project.
Despite this, in conjunction with broader societal changes around perceptions of torture and ill-treatment, the creation of support networks contributes to the alleviation of the consequences of torture and other ill-treatment.
We are very proud of the work we’ve done under the project. This work would not have been possible without the financial support of EIDHR, the Oak Foundation, Sigrid Rausing Trust, Open Society, MFA Norway, DFATD Canada, and the Ford Foundation
Achievements made – both expected and unforeseen – will have an impact long beyond the life of the project. Despite this, a range of weapons, equipment, and techniques are used in acts of torture or ill-treatment around the world every day.
Further funding is crucial for torture prevention efforts. It is vital that Omega can continue our work addressing the use and misuse of equipment, controlling the trade in weapons, equipment, and techniques, and supporting the torture prevention community.