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Towards Torture-Free Trade: Opportunities and Challenges

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

11 December 2020

Excellencies, Colleagues,

Greetings. In a very challenging context for human rights, the Global Alliance for Torture-Free Trade has been a strong and welcome initiative – a framework for practical steps to profoundly improve respect for people's dignity and rights around the world1.

My Office was honoured to contribute to the Secretary-General's report earlier this year to the General Assembly examining the feasibility, scope and parameters for international standards regarding the import, export and transfer of goods for use in capital punishment or torture. The report, which came in follow-up to the General Assembly's resolution 73/304, drew on on contributions from some 40 States from diverse regions of the world.

Our work in this area builds on a number of significant regional developments. They include the European Union's Regulation 2019/125 concerning trade in certain goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.. In the African region, the Robben Island Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment recommend that States “prohibit and prevent the use, production and trade of equipment or substances designed to inflict torture or ill-treatment and the abuse of any other equipment or substance to these ends ”. In addition, the Council of Europe is expected to adopt a recommendation on this topic early next year.

Our shared point of departure, upon which all agree, is that that international law already, clearly and unconditionally, prohibits torture. No derogation from this rule is permitted under any circumstances. The fact that goods whose only purpose is to inflict torture and ill-treatment on human beings in the custody of the torturer are still being produced and traded is abhorrent.

Successive Special Rapporteurs on torture have called for an end to the development, production, trade and use of weapons, as well as other means of deploying force, that are inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading. As High Commissioner, I share this principled position.  

There is also a need for strict controls on the export of security and law enforcement equipment which may have certain legitimate purposes, but which can also be misused – the so-called “dual use” conundrum. This includes specific kinds of restraints; weapons delivering electric shocks; and numerous types of riot control agents.

Devising effective regulations in this complex area is clearly challenging – but it is not impossible. The European Union regulation provides an interesting model, since it both prohibits the trade in inherently abusive equipment – such as electric chairs and bar fetters – and also seeks to control, through licensing, the export of other articles which may have legitimate purposes, but could be misused. The need for an international regulatory mechanism in this respect has been echoed by many governments – including a number of States that responded to our recent survey.

We have seen the validity and effectiveness of such approaches in comparable areas. Regulations and other initiatives applied with respect to pharmaceutical medications, which may similarly have legitimate uses, but are open to possible use in lethal injections is a key such example. As you are aware, the United Nations opposes use of the death penalty, which, in my view, cannot be reconciled with the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment and the underlying principle of human dignity and equality of all before the law. In light of the significant impact these initiatives have had on the practice of the death penalty, I encourage further examination of this type of model in the context of torture-free trade.

Beyond the pharmaceutical industry, and businesses involved in producing and exporting law-enforcement equipment, companies from other sectors could risk entanglement  in activities relating to torture or capital punishment. Further to the framework set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights  every business should carry out human rights due diligence across their operations, to ensure that – for our purposes today - they are not risking involvement with torture or arbitrary capital punishment through their operations and relationships, notably in their engagement with States.

Alongside strengthened legal and regulatory regimes, there is also a great deal of work to be done in moving police forces away from coercive investigative techniques. Policing builds greater trust and is more effective when it does not resort to abusive practices. My Office is contributing to the  development of a universal protocol on non-coercive techniques for investigative interviewing, to provide guidance to authorities on how to conduct ethical and effective interviews without inflicting torture or ill-treatment. We are also assisting the development of an UNPOL manual that focuses on these techniques.

I strongly encourage swift and decisive action in all these areas. My Office receives very frequent, and in some regions, increasing reports alleging torture in every region of the world. Governments must act to immediately eradicate these shameful and illegal practices – and businesses, everywhere, should ensure they do not get involved in them in any way. The Secretary-General's report also emphasises that the establishment of common international standards could ensure much more effective regulation – and therefore protection - in this area.

Nominations of the governmental experts who will look further into the feasibility, scope and potential parameters of common international standards in this area are currently in their final stages. My Office looks forward to supporting the work of this group, and by this time next year, the General Assembly will have received their report and recommendations on the way forward.


Torture strips away the essence of a human being’s humanity, dignity, and self-worth. It demeans, debases and defiles the victim. Less obviously, it does the same for the torturer, while rendering the torturer criminally liable under national and international law. The struggle to end all forms of torturehas long been at the forefront of the OHCHR’s work. This fight is not a regional or sectoral issue, but is truly in all of our interests. Recently, the Global Alliance has provided a strong, fresh impetus for this profoundly necessary movement, and I hope many more countries will join these efforts.

Thank you

1. Albania, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, 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 the United Kingdom.