The path to an international torture free trade treaty

United Nations General Assembly, Credit: GPA Photo Archive
United Nations General Assembly, Credit: GPA Photo Archive

Around the world, countless individuals suffer from torture and ill-treatment every day. While almost anything can be used to inflict torture, it is often perpetrated using specialised law enforcement equipment, which is manufactured, promoted, and traded globally.

Some of this equipment, such as spiked batons, body worn electric shock devices, and weighted restraints are specifically designed for abusive purposes, while other items, such as standard handcuffs or batons have legitimate law enforcement applications but are often misused. Click the images below to read more about the types of equipment used to commit torture.

For more than thirty years, the Omega Research Foundation has been dedicated to strengthening national and regional regulations controlling the trade in law enforcement weapons and equipment. Our work has been pivotal in advancing this cause, including playing a significant role in the development of the European Union anti-torture regulation, among other key initiatives.

Omega is working with Amnesty International, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and organisations from around the world to support and facilitate the UN’s efforts to establish effective international standards and regulatory measures on the trade in ‘tools of torture.’ It is time for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty.

This webpage is designed to share our latest efforts to support this process, the steps taken so far, and to inform future advocacy work.

ESTABLISHING AND CLARIFYING OBLIGATIONS

In recent decades, there has been a growing recognition among the international community of the obligation upon all States to regulate and restrict the trade in certain law enforcement equipment and weapons, so as to ensure that these weapons and equipment are not employed for torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

As early as 2001, for example, the UN Commission on Human Rights called on…

“all Governments to take appropriate effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent and prohibit the production, trade, export and use of equipment which is specifically designed to inflict torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” (Article 8).

UN Commission on Human Rights

 

Special Rapporteurs, UN officials, and international and regional human rights bodies have also called for international controls on the trade in goods used for torture, including:

  • Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, Dr Alice Jill Edwards (2023)
  • Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Morris Tidball-Binz (2024)
  • UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk (2023)
  • Former Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule (2024)
  • UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet (2018)
  • Former Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer (2017)
  • Former Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven (2005)
  • The UN Commission on Human Rights (Resolution 2001/62, 25 April 2001) 
  • The UN Committee Against Torture (Report of the Committee against Torture, Thirty-ninth session [5-23 November 2007], and Fortieth session [28 April-16 May 2008]) 
  • The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Resolution on the prohibition of the use, production, export and trade of tools used for torture. ACHPR/Res.472 [LXVII] 2020) 

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) in its biennial Omnibus Torture Resolution has repeatedly recognised the importance of all States introducing measures to prohibit the trade in inherently abusive law enforcement equipment.

The path to a torture free trade treaty

Building on the growing recognition of the need to regulate the trade in ‘tools of torture’, Omega has partnered with organisations from around the world to support and facilitate the establishment of an effective international Torture-Free Trade Treaty. The timeline below outlines some of the steps taken so far as well as Omega’s efforts to support this process.

Interactive Timeline

Amnesty and Omega publish two joint briefings +

2017

Establishing the Alliance +

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September 2017

In recent years there has been a growing momentum on the part of the international community of states to address the trade in ‘tools of torture’. The Alliance for Torture-Free Trade has been a key organising forum for this action. The Alliance was formally launched by Argentina, the EU, and Mongolia in September 2017 and currently comprises 63 States from all world regions.

With Amnesty International, the Omega Research Foundation was active in the establishment of the Alliance, participating in its inaugural UN side meeting. We continue to support Alliance work and participate in Alliance events.

Amnesty and Omega publish a joint briefing +

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2018

In 2018 Amnesty and Omega published a joint briefing Combating torture: the need for comprehensive regulation of law enforcement equipment.

View the report
2018

Alliance and the UN +

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September 2018

On 24 September 2018 at the first Ministerial meeting of the Alliance, Member States agreed to initiate concerted Alliance activities through the United Nations to promote development of international measures to tackle the trade in ‘tools of torture’.

A recording of the meeting which included presentations by Omega and Amnesty can be accessed here.

Establishing a UN Process: “Examining the feasibility scope and parameters for possible common international standards” +

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June 2019

In June 2019 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 73/304 Towards torture-free trade: examining the feasibility scope and parameters for possible common international standards. As with the UNGA Omnibus Torture Resolution, this Resolution recognised the relationship between trade and torture noting

“the absence of common international standards on the import, export and transfer of goods used for (a) capital punishment (b) torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is a contributory factor to facilitate the availability of these goods and enable such practices.”

The Resolution also called on the UN Secretary General to undertake a survey of “the views of Member states on the feasibility and possible scope of a range of options” for such an international instrument. It subsequently charged the Secretary- General with establishing a “group of governmental experts… to examine…the feasibility scope of the goods to be included and draft parameters for a range of options to establish common international standards on the matter” which will then report to the UNGA.

This map shows how States voted on this Resolution. A recording of the General Assembly discussion of draft resolution A/73/L.94 can be accessed here.

2019

UN Process: Stage one +

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2020

As requested in Resolution 73/304, UN Member States were surveyed including via a questionnaire on the feasibility scope and parameters for possible common international standards on the trade in tools of torture.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights received contributions from 46 States. Many of these States are members of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade.

Click on the map to read the contributions received from States.

2020

Report of the UN Secretary-General +

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July 2020

The consequent Report of the UN Secretary-General Towards torture-free trade: examining the feasibility scope and parameters for possible common international standards (A/74/969) was published in July 2020.

The report presented a summary of the existing measures introduced by States to regulate the trade including through the EU Anti-Torture Regulation which Omega discusses in more detail here. The Secretary-General’s report also explores the possible nature and scope of common international standards noting for instance suggested approaches to differentiating the types of goods addressed.

“Most of the 46 States that responded to the questionnaire supported the proposal to establish common international standards and a majority were in favour of a legally binding instrument establishing measures to control and restrict trade in goods used for capital punishment torture or other forms of ill-treatment”.

Reiterating that the prohibition of torture is a peremptory norm of international law applicable in all circumstances the Secretary General’s report recommends that the State contributions received form the basis for the work of the forthcoming Group of Governmental Experts. The Secretary-General’s report is a milestone explicitly recognising that the establishment of common international standards could ensure more effective regulation of the trade in goods used for torture other ill-treatment and the death penalty.

Ending the Torture Trade: The path to global controls on the ‘tools’ of torture +

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December 2020

In December 2020 the Omega Research Foundation together with Amnesty International released a report addressing the need for international controls on the trade in ‘tools’ of torture and and presenting a route towards these controls.

The report Ending the Torture Trade: The path to global controls on the ‘tools’ of torture along with previous joint publications is available on our Reports page. Spanish and French translations of the Executive Summary and Anti-Torture Trade Framework are also available. The report presents a range of illustrative cases from around the world showing the employment of inherently abusive equipment and other law enforcement equipment in torture and other ill-treatment.

In addition to illustrative cases the Omega-Amnesty report presents essential elements for an Anti-Torture Trade Framework designed to assist States in their efforts to regulate and restrict the trade in the tools of torture specifically by:

  • Introducing (or strengthening existing) national controls on the trade in goods used for torture other forms of ill-treatment or capital punishment and
  • Aiding the development of regional and international instruments in this area including through the current UN process.
View the report

UN Side meeting +

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December 2020

The joint report was launched at a UN side meeting/webinar event held in December 2020 which was organised by the Alliance for Torture Free Trade.

This event included keynote addresses from Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Representative for Human Rights. A thread of our live-tweeting of the event is here and the Amnesty and Omega presentations delivered at the event can be accessed here.

UN Process: Stage two +

August 2021

Early in August 2021 the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) – a ten-member team including two representatives from (and agreed by) each of the five ‘UN regional groups’ – was established.

The GGE was tasked with exploring options for establishing common international standards in this area considering the findings of the Secretary-General’s 2020 report. The GGE undertook a process of consultation with States as well as Civil Society. Omega, along with colleagues at Amnesty International and the Harvard Law International Human Rights Clinic, made both written and oral interventions.

2021

The GGE report +

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May 2022

The UN GGE’s report exploring options for regulating the trade in tools of torture was released on 30th May 2022. The report recognised both the importance and feasibility of prohibiting inherently abusive equipment and regulating the trade in law enforcement equipment that could be misused for torture and other ill-treatment.

According to the UNGGE report

“Most members of the Group consider it feasible to establish international standards in relation to goods that have no other use than for the purpose of torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The report recommended that any future international standard includes

“a prohibition of the production import export transfer and brokering as well as ancillary activities around this category of goods”

And stated that such a ban would be

“a proactive measure to prevent human rights violations”.

In addition

“Most members of the Group consider it feasible to establish international standards in relation to the import export and transfer of goods that could be misused for the purpose of torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment as long as their application is restricted to a clearly defined and narrow scope of goods for which expertise on specific fields is needed.”

The UNGGE report also recommended

“any future international standards include controls on the import export and transfer of a clearly defined category of equipment used for law-enforcement or detention practice where there are reasonable grounds for believing that the law enforcement/detention equipment will be used for torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

In their joint response available here Amnesty, Omega, and Harvard welcomed the UNGGE report. Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s Secretary General, stated “The report is a major step towards curbing this despicable trade which undermines the global ban on torture and other ill-treatment and allows companies to profit from unimaginable pain and suffering.”

Amnesty, Omega, and Harvard have particularly welcomed a UNGGE proposal for the UN General Assembly to begin negotiations on a legally binding instrument. Michael Crowley, a Research Associate at Omega, stated “A legally binding international Torture-Free Trade Treaty is the only means of ensuring that companies promoting spiked batons electric shock belts and other inherently abusive equipment will no longer be able to sell their products in a global market place. Such a treaty would also ensure that companies selling law enforcement equipment wherever they operate will be subject to common regulations that prevent them from supplying abusive police and security forces across the globe.”

View the report
2022

GGE report presented to UN General Assembly +

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2022

On 22nd June 2022 the Chair of the UN GGE, Asger Kjærum, presented the GGE’s report to the UN General Assembly.

After the presentation of the report by the GGE Chair, statements were delivered by representatives from Argentina, Austria, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Iran, Israel, Luxembourg, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore. Mongolia, on behalf of the 63 member states of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, spoke in favour of international controls on the trade in tools of torture. The representative of the 27 European Union Member States similarly spoke in favour of controls. In addition to the 63 Alliance states and the 27 EU states, arguments in favour of international controls were also made by representatives from Argentina, Austria, France, and Luxembourg. Both Argentina and Austria also called for states to introduce their own national controls on the torture trade. Concerns about the process were raised by the representatives of China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore.

Essential Elements of the Torture-Free Trade Treaty published +

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September 2022

On 23rd September the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, Amnesty, and Omega publish Essential Elements of the Torture Free Trade Treaty. The report outlines key content and operational features for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty, including general principles and goals for the Treaty key definitions details of trade controls and information on monitoring and operational aspects.

The paper also includes two Annexes that provide more information on the types of weapons and equipment to be addressed in the Treaty. A Torture-Free Trade Treaty would prohibit the manufacture and trade in inherently abusive law enforcement equipment (outlined in Annex I) and would control the trade in equipment that can be used for torture and other forms of ill-treatment (listed in Annex II). The report marks a milestone in the campaign to work towards a Torture-Free Trade Treaty.

View the report

Civil Society Summit +

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January 2023

On 18th and 19th January 2023 Omega researchers attended the Torture-Free Trade Treaty Summit at the Human Rights Action Centre in London. The Summit was organised by Amnesty International, Omega, the Harvard International Human Rights Law Clinic, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT).

Attended by over 50 in-person participants and more than 60 virtual participants, the Summit was an opportunity for civil society from around the world to make connections share knowledge and further the campaign for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty. At the close of the Summit, more than 30 organisations – including the Omega Research Foundation – signed the Shoreditch Declaration for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty. The Declaration calls for prohibitions on the manufacture and trade of inherently abusive equipment (including spiked batons and body-worn electric shock weapons for example) as well as effective human rights-based trade controls on standard law enforcement equipment often used to commit acts of torture or other ill-treatment (such as pepper spray and standard handcuffs).

View declaration
2023

Special Rapporteur’s report announced +

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March 2023

On 14 March 2023 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Dr Alice Jill Edwards, announced that one of her upcoming reports would study the regulation production and trade in law enforcement equipment and the relationship with torture and other ill-treatment.

Special Rapporteur’s report published +

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October 2023

Dr Edwards, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, presented her interim report to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 78th Session on 12 October 2023. The report is a thematic study of the nature scope and regulation of the production and trade of law enforcement equipment and weapons and the relationship with torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment.

The Torture-Free Trade Network made a submission to the Special Rapporteur’s report. You can read all submissions here. In the report the Special Rapporteur outlines the need for a legally binding international torture trade instrument – in other words an international treaty – noting the current scale and ongoing growth of the trade in this equipment. You can watch the Special Rapporteur’s press conference on the launch of the report here. Omega assisted with the research and analysis for the report and we see the launch as an important moment in the campaign for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty. In conjunction with the launch, Omega staff undertook successful advocacy at the UN in October 2023. We were joined by representatives of other member organisations of the Torture-Free Trade Network including Amnesty International, Center for Victims of Torture (US), Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (US), Pan African Reparations Initiative, and the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (Argentina). We continue to work with the Special Rapporteur, the Torture-Free Trade Network, and many others who support the campaign for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty. If you are interested in being involved please get in touch.

View the report

We are continuing to update this page as developments occur. If you have any questions about the UN process, or if you would like to discuss any information presented here, please contact us.

We rely on the generous contributions of donors to continue our work. If you are interested in supporting our work to end the trade in the tools of torture, please click here.