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NGOs Campaign for a Torture-Free UN Trade Treaty

Credit: Torture Museum, Amsterdam, via Wikipedia

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 7 2023 (IPS) - Hinting at “Western hypocrisy”, a senior UN official once told a group of reporters, perhaps half-jokingly: “When you go on one of those sight-seeing tours in Europe, they will show you their palaces and castles– but never their medieval prisons or torture chambers.”

The world’s torturers, according to Western nations, were mostly in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and in authoritarian regimes of the Middle East -– with a notoriety for whip lashes, blind folds, leg irons, electric shock devices and public hangings.

In more recent years, torture and water-boarding were common forms of punishment in US-run Guantanamo Bay, in the Abu Ghraib prison in US-occupied Iraq and at the Bagram American air base in Afghanistan.

And in the heart of Amsterdam are a “Torture Museum” and a “Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments” displaying some of the equipment of a bygone era.

Last month, the London-based Amnesty International led a coalition of over 30 civil society organizations (CSOs) calling for a treaty to control the trade in tools of torture used to suppress peaceful protests and abuse detainees around the world.

Dr. Simon Adams, President and CEO of the Center for Victims of Torture, the largest international organization that treats survivors and advocates for an end to torture worldwide, told IPS it’s sickening and outrageous that even though torture is illegal everywhere, at all times, and in all circumstances, more than 500 companies from 58 countries are still manufacturing, marketing and selling goods used in torture on the world market.

“It’s time to strictly regulate goods that are deliberately misused by some security forces to commit torture, and to impose a global ban on goods that have no use other than torture.”

“We need to outlaw this immoral trade in unspeakable human suffering. The UN General Assembly is our global parliament, and international law obligates states to help prevent torture”.

So, the General Assembly should immediately move towards the adoption of a Torture-Free Trade Treaty and prohibit people and companies from profiting from torture,” he noted.

In the declaration signed in London January 20, the civil rights organizations (CSOs) launched a campaign calling for a treaty to prohibit the manufacture and trade in inherently abusive equipment such as spiked batons and body-worn electric shock devices, as well as the introduction of human rights-based controls on the trade in more standard law enforcement equipment, such as pepper spray, rubber bullets and handcuffs.

These items are often used to commit acts of torture or other ill-treatment, which are categorically prohibited under international law, the coalition said.

Asked whether such a treaty should originate at the United Nations, Verity Coyle, Amnesty International’s Law & Policy adviser, told IPS: “Yes, Amnesty International around the world is campaigning for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty through our Flagship Campaign – Protect the Protest.

When the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) report was published on 30 May 2022, Amnesty published this PR response.

She said the 193-member UN General Assembly (UNGA) is the logical forum given 2019 resolution, including the GGE report recommendations.

The Alliance for Torture-Free Trade (60+ members) is coordinated by the EU, Argentina and Mongolia.

In June 2022, Amnesty was invited to present its analysis of the GGEs report to a meeting of the Alliance “and we continue to hold regular meetings with the EU in particular in anticipation of resolution being brought forward requesting a negotiating mandate”.

Civil Society in Latin America, Coyle pointed out, is speaking regularly to Argentina about the process.

“Our Sections around the world are about to embark on a series of lobby meetings in capitals”, said Coyle, who sits on the global Steering Committee of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, of which Amnesty International is a member.

In September 2017, the EU, Argentina and Mongolia launched the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade at the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York.

The Alliance currently comprises over 60 states from all regions of the world pledging to “act together to further prevent, restrict and end trade” in goods used for torture, other ill-treatment and the death penalty.

In June 2019, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution A/73/L.94, Towards torture-free trade, initiating a process for “examining the feasibility, scope and parameters for possible common international standards” for regulating international trade in this area.

The first stage in this UN process resulted in the July 2020 publication of a UN Secretary General’s study of member states’ positions, which found that the majority of respondent states supported international standards, with most believing these should be through a “legally binding instrument establishing measures to control and restrict trade in goods used for capital punishment, torture or other forms of ill-treatment”.

Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur on “the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism”, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, is undertaking a “technical visit” to the United States.

Between 6 and 14 February, she will visit Washington D.C. and subsequently the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Over the course of the subsequent three-month period, Ní Aoláin will also carry out a series of interviews with individuals in the United States and abroad, on a voluntary basis, including victims and families of victims of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and former detainees in countries of resettlement/repatriation.

The visit takes place in accordance with the Terms of Reference for Country Visits by Special Procedures Mandate Holders.

Besides Amnesty International, the CSOs campaigning for the treaty include American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Article 36, Asia Alliance Against Torture, Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, International Commission of Jurists, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), among others.

Coyle of Amnesty International also pointed out that equipment, such as tear gas, rubber bullets, batons and restraints, have been used to intimidate, repress and punish protesters, human rights defenders and others, during the policing of demonstrations and in places of detention, in all regions, in recent years.

“Thousands of protesters have sustained eye injuries resulting from the reckless use of rubber bullets, while others have been hit by tear gas grenades, doused in excessive amounts of chemical irritants, beaten with batons, or forced into stress positions by restraints”.

Despite this, there are currently no global human rights-related controls on the trade in law enforcement equipment. However, the UN General Assembly now has a historic opportunity to vote to begin negotiations on a treaty, she declared.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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