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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

First Ministerial Meeting of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade

Torture-free trade

24 September 2018

​Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

New York, 24 September 2018

Colleagues, Friends,

It is a particular privilege to address this first Ministerial meeting of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade. Not only my country, but also my family, have suffered greatly from the devastating effects of torture. On behalf of all who have suffered torture, or who have seen its effects on people they love, thank you for being part of the vital work to end this trade.

Torture is a grave attack on human dignity. It inflicts serious damage on both victims and societies. 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.

This is particularly clear for items which are inherently harmful: batons with metal spikes, electrified thumbscrews, electric shock belts, weighted leg restraints, and many other cruel tools. These are designed purely for torture and have no legitimate use.

Other tools can have an appropriate law enforcement use, but are often used for torture: tear gas, pepper spray, and even ordinary handcuffs. Some of the most cruel forms of torture can be inflicted without specialized equipment, and we cannot pretend to be ignorant of this fact.

Regrettably, too many companies are willing to meet the demand for products that have no legitimate use, or are not paying sufficient attention to the use to which potentially legitimate equipment will be put. All companies making products that can be misused in this way must undertake human rights due diligence to avoid the risk of being involved with torture – they must know and show that their supply and demand chains are free of torture risks.

Failing to ask enough questions is not a sufficient excuse for facilitating torture and repression: businesses must take full responsibility for their actions. But we also need preventative measures to be adopted, country by country, reflecting international standards aimed at avoiding business involvement with torture and other human rights abuses.

In our globalized, interconnected world, international cooperation is also vital. The Alliance for Torture-Free Trade is playing an essential part in this. I’d like to pay particular tribute to the European Union, Argentina and Mongolia for their initiative in creating the Alliance, and to the States, organisations and individuals who have contributed so much to this task – some of whom I’m delighted to share this platform with today.

Your work in tackling this trade in pain and death is vitally important.

Our eventual goal must be to completely halt the trade in equipment that has no lawful purpose, and to ensure that legitimate security products are sold only in contexts where every effort has been made to ensure their use will also be legitimate.

The Alliance’s practical measures to control and restrict exports, to monitor trade routes, to improve cooperation and to share best practice are important steps towards these twin goals.

I also applaud the Alliance’s aim of ending the trade in goods used for capital punishment. Private companies also have a vital role to play – as we saw last year when the world's largest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, decided to prevent the use of its drugs in executions.

I’m pleased to see the commitment of so many in this room to being part of the national and global trend away from the use of the death penalty.


The current situation is intolerable. We need to do more to prevent these profound violations of human rights.

Many important initiatives have already been taken by individual countries and blocs, and the UN’s human rights mechanisms have also made very significant interventions and recommendations, including key on-the-ground work by the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, whose assessment operations are highly effective in detecting and monitoring the use of these tools.

And where people have been tortured, the UN Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture offers them medical, psychological, legal, social and financial support. I encourage you all to contribute to its vital work, which currently reaches out to more than 50,000 people every year.

Excellencies, No State and no company should export torture. No State should permit the sale of equipment whose use would be illegal in their own country. No State should turn a blind eye to the final use of products made on its territory.

The suffering of the tortured takes place in secret – far from production lines, boardrooms and shipping routes. We must hear their cries as if they were in the next room. Human rights values are what binds humanity together, and all of us need to stand up for human rights.

Thank you, on behalf of the victims of torture, for your willingness to end this trade.