Trade in the "Tools of Torture"

International law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (ill-treatment) throughout the world, at all times and in all circumstances and covers both complicity as well as direct participation in such practices. Recognised as a peremptory norm of general international law, the prohibition is binding and absolute, whether or not states are parties to particular treaties. Despite this, law enforcement and other state officials carry out or allow torture and ill-treatment all over the world.

The prohibition on torture and ill-treatment should also apply to the manufacture and use of prison and police weapons and equipment that are inherently abusive and have no purpose other than to inflict torture and ill-treatment. This includes body worn electric shock belts, electric shock batons, weighted leg restraints, thumb cuffs and spiked batons.

Recognising the danger that the failure to control trade will facilitate or fuel torture and ill-treatment, the United Nations Generally Assembly has repeatedly called upon:

“[A]ll States to take appropriate effective legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures to prevent and prohibit the production, trade, export, import and use of equipment that has no practical use other than for the purpose of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

In addition Omega believes that there should be controls on the trade and use of law enforcement equipment that could be misused for  torture and ill-treatment but could also have a legitimate law enforcement purpose, such as handcuffs, police batons and chemical irritants (commonly known as tear gas and pepper spray).

Although certain countries and regions, such as the European Union, have introduced controls in this area, the majority have not and the controls that do exist can still be improved. Consequently, a core focus of Omega’s mission to combat torture and ill-treatment, is our ongoing programme to promote and facilitate the development and implementation of national, regional and international controls to effectively regulate the trade in security and law enforcement equipment.

Our current project, funded by the European Commission's European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), started in October 2013 and is entitled Towards Stronger Controls on the Supply and Use of Torture Technologies. It builds upon earlier EC funded projects including Developing International Controls on the Trade and Use of Torture Instruments (2009-12) and Tracking the Supply of Torture Instruments (2006-09). Our work is global, with a particular focus at present on the European Union and accession countries, Americas, Asia and Southern Africa. Our activities include:

  • Researching the manufacture, trade and use of ‘tools of torture’;
  • Producing briefings for torture prevention bodies, governments and law enforcement officials;
  • Providing information and training to human rights defenders; and
  • Lobbying and advocacy at a national, regional and international level for stricter controls.  

Various briefings produced under this programme of work are available on our publications page.