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UN expert urges end of torture-tools trade amid global spike in torture

13 October 2023

NEW YORK (13 October 2023) – A UN expert today called on States to step up efforts to prevent torture by developing a global agreement to regulate the trade in torture-capable weapons, tools and equipment widely used by law enforcement and other public authorities.

“Devices such as spiked batons that easily puncture the skin, thumb cuffs that risk damaging the fine bones of the hands, and electric shock belts that electrocute individuals at the touch of a button are widely available and used,” said Alice Jill Edwards, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture.

“These tools are as horrific as the racks and thumbscrews favoured by medieval torturers,” she said.

In her report to the General Assembly, Edwards has documented 20 different types of torture instruments currently in use, which are inherently torturous and should be immediately removed from production and trade.

The Special Rapporteur’s list of prohibited inhuman or degrading items includes cage beds, gang chains, whips, sjamboks and lathis, as well as excessively weighted batons and gloves that turn defensive equipment into offensive weapons. Her call came amid increasing reports of police violence in many parts of the world.

The expert warned against ammunition containing multiple kinetic impact projectiles and millimetre-wave weapons, which are designed to heat the top layer of skin to encourage people to leave an area.

In the report, Edwards identified a second category of ordinary law enforcement equipment that is widely traded between countries and for which regulation would help prevent misuse. Companies in at least 63 countries manufacture or trade items listed in this category.

“Police must be properly equipped and protected, but a trade agreement would prevent harm by operating an early warning trigger to cancel or suspend the sale of certain items when circumstances warrant,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“The trade in instruments of torture has tentacles that stretch across the globe,” she said.

The expert found that more than 335 companies in 54 countries are involved in the manufacture or promotion of items on the proposed Prohibited List.

“It is time to improve State and corporate accountability for torture,” Edwards said. “Companies can currently develop and sell items that have no legitimate purpose other than to inflict excessive pain.”

“They are quite literally profiting from human suffering,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur noted that the need for regulation is urgent as Governments continue to outsource more public functions to private non-state entities.

Dr. Alice Jill Edwards, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr. Alessandro Marra ([email protected]/+41 22 928 93 21)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Maya Derouaz ([email protected]) or Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts

The Special Rapporteur on Torture is on Twitter: @DrAliceJEdwards

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