Report on ‘Tools of Torture’ by UN Special Rapporteur

04 Oct 2023

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture presenting her report to the UN in New York, 2023
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture presenting her report to the UN in New York, 2023

In October 2023 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture published a landmark report on the need to regulate the trade in equipment used for torture or other ill-treatment. In this report, the UN Special Rapporteur, with technical support from Omega, reviewed the legal obligations of States to prevent torture. She reiterated statements from previous Special Rapporteurs that this must include the trade in law enforcement equipment used in torture and other ill-treatment. She recommended that an “international torture-free trade instrument be developed” and encouraged the “participation of all States in this process”.

She identified 23 specific types of law enforcement weapons and equipment she designated as “inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading” based on either:

  • their technical specifications (design) such that they inflict pain or suffering, or are humiliating or debasing, that is beyond the threshold permitted by the prohibition on torture or other ill-treatment;
  • or because the purpose for which they are being used can be achieved by less harmful means”. Consequently she stated that “their purpose is deemed to be illegitimate” and their manufacture, trade and use should be prohibited.

These Category A Goods were:

  • Restraints: restraint chairs with metallic restraints; thumb-cuffs; bar fetters; rigid bar combination cuffs; gang chains; weighted hand or leg restraints; fixed restraints; cage or net beds; hoods and blindfolds; spit hoods/guards
  • Striking and kinetic impact weapons: spiked batons; spiked shields and body armour; weighted batons and gloves; whips and sjamboks; ammunition containing multiple non-metallic kinetic impact projectiles; automatic/multi-barrel launchers firing kinetic impact projectiles; lathis
  • Electric shock weapons: body worn electric shock devices; electric shock weapons, batons and shields
  • Directed energy weapons: millimetre wave weapons

She recommended that the trade in these inherently abusive types of equipment should be prohibited.

In addition, she also identified 20 specific types of law enforcement weapons and equipment which “have a legitimate function for law enforcement and other public functions when used in strict accordance with international human rights standards but can be readily misused to torture or cause ill-treatment.” She consequently stated that the trade and use of such items “are to be controlled due to this risk.”

These Categore B Goods were:

  • Restraints: restraint chairs with non-metallic restraints; restraint board with non-metallic restraints; handcuffs; legcuffs; combination cuffs; belly chains & restraint belts
  • Striking and kinetic impact weapons: batons; crowd control shields; ammunition containing single non-metallic projectiles;
  • Electric shock weapons: single projectile electric shock weapons
  • Chemical irritants and delivery mechanisms: chemical irritants; malodorants; chemical irritant portable sprayers; chemical irritant projectiles and grenades; fixed sprayers; large calibre chemical irritant munitions (greater than 56mm); single/limited shot launchers
  • Other weapons and devices: water cannon; acoustic weapons and devices; dazzling lights and lasers; unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) armed with less-lethal weapons; stun grenades.