UN Process

International controls on the trade in the tools of torture

Since its founding, the Omega Research Foundation has investigated and documented the international trade in law enforcement equipment and weapons used for torture or other ill-treatment (‘tools of torture’).

Informed by our primary research, we have worked with civil society organisations, States and international organisations to promote and assist the development and implementation of national and regional measures to regulate this trade. We are also working to encourage and facilitate the development and agreement of effective international standards and related regulatory measures on this trade through the ongoing UN process.

Should you have any questions about the UN process, or if you would like to discuss any information presented here further, please contact us at info@omegaresearchfoundation.org. If you are interested in supporting our work to end the trade in the tools of torture, please click here.

 

UN: establishing and clarifying obligations

The international community has long recognised the obligations 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. In Resolution 2001/62, the UN Commission on Human Rights called upon

“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).

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) in its (now) biennial Omnibus Torture Resolution has repeatedly recognised the importance of all States introducing measures to prohibit the trade in such inherently abusive law enforcement equipment. The Resolution frames this as part of States’ comprehensive anti-torture action framework, and the language used mirrors that of the UN Human Rights Commission. The most recent UNGA Omnibus Torture Resolution, Resolution 74/143, is from December 2019.

In his report to the 2005 Session of the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/2005/62, see Article 37), the then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, recommended broadening the scope of goods to be regulated. He called on States, inter alia,   

(a) "To designate and prohibit the manufacture, transfer and use of certain forms of equipment ‘specifically designed for’ or which ‘has no or virtually no, practical use other than for the purpose of’ torture, whose use is inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading; 

(b) To introduce strict controls on the export of other security and law enforcement equipment to help ensure that it is not used to inflict torture or ill-treatment;  …

(f) To consider the development of an international regulatory mechanism”.

 

International and regional human rights bodies and entities have recognised the importance of addressing the trade in equipment used for torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Notably, this includes:

  • successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture, including the current post-holder Nils Melzer,
  • The UN Commission on Human Rights (see, for example, Resolution 2001/62, 25 April 2001)
  • The UN Committee Against Torture (see, for example, the Report of the Committee against Torture, Thirty-ninth session (5-23 November 2007), and Fortieth session (28 April-16 May 2008). Reports of the Committee Against Torture are available here.)
  • The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (see, for example, the Robben Island Guidelines, Guideline 14)
  • The Council of Europe (for example, ‘Human rights and business’, Recommendation CM/Rec(2016)3).

In September 2018, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared:

“Freedom from torture is an absolute right – in all circumstances, and in all countries. It is shocking that in spite of this universal ban, the tools of torture continue to be freely traded across the globe.
It’s time to match the global consensus on the need to eliminate torture with concrete action to end this trade. It’s time for Governments to close the regulatory loopholes, which enable companies to lawfully sell goods that have no lawful purpose.

In reality, States don’t only have a legal obligation to prohibit and refrain from torture: under the Convention against Torture they must also take effective steps to prevent it. To allow these products to be made because the eventual victims live in another country is not an option.”

 

2017 – Establishing an Alliance for Torture Free Trade

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 over 60 States from all world regions. Alliance membership is recorded on an Omega map.

Members of the Alliance have committed themselves to “act together to further prevent, restrict and end trade…of goods used for capital punishment, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  

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.

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’.

 

2019 – Establishing a UN Process “examining the feasibility, scope and parameters for possible common international standards”

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 acknowledged “growing support across all regions” for an international instrument establishing “common international standards for the import, export and transfer of goods used for (a) capital punishment, (b) torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

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, commencing in 2020, 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.

How States voted on this Resolution is recorded on an Omega map here.

 

2020 UN Process: Stage one

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.

Contributions were received from Albania, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Mongolia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and UK.

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 report also speaks to the possible scope of common international standards, noting, for instance, suggested approaches to differentiating the types of goods addressed.

As the report states,

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”. [emphasis added]

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.

In December 2020, the Omega Research Foundation, together with Amnesty International, released a report addressing the need for, and presenting a route towards, international controls on the trade in ‘tools’ of torture. This report, Ending the Torture Trade: The path to global controls on the ‘tools’ of torture, along with previous joint publications, is available on our Publications page (and is uploaded below). Spanish and French translations of the Executive Summary and Anti-Torture Trade Framework are also available.

This 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. For a more visual overview, Omega has also collated further illustrative examples of the misuse of law enforcement equipment, taken from our recent reports in a map.

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.

More information is available in the report.

The 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. More information on the event is available here, the video recording is here, thread of our live-tweeting of the event is here, and the Amnesty and Omega presentations delivered at the event are provided below.

 

2021 UN Process: Stage two

As of February 2021, the next stage of the UN process is still to get fully underway. The Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) is still being established. Once comprised, the GGE will be a five-member team that includes a representative from (and agreed by) each of the five ‘UN regional groups’. The GGE is expected to be agreed early in 2021, and will then commence its work to explore options for establishing common international standards in this area, considering the findings of the Secretary-General’s 2020 report. The GGE is tasked with completing its work and delivering its report to the UN General Assembly for consideration at the UNGA Session due to end 31 August 2021.

We will continue to update this page as developments occur. In the meantime, if you have questions about the process, please contact us.