Amnesty International signs declaration calling for international controls to combat trade in tools of torture

More than 30 international organizations have joined forces to call for an international treaty to control the trade in tools of torture used to suppress peaceful protests and abuse detainees around the world.

In a declaration signed in London, organizations including Amnesty International, called 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.

“For too long, states have ignored the trade in tools of torture allowing companies throughout the world to profit from human pain and misery. All states have a responsibility to act decisively to bring this trade under control. This declaration is an important step towards an international treaty,” said Verity Coyle, Amnesty International’s Law & Policy adviser.

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.

The trade in tools of torture is currently out of control. It is a global problem, requiring a global response.

Dr Michael Crowley, Omega Research Foundation

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.

Dr Simon Adams, President and Chief Executive at the Center for the Victims of Torture said: “I meet torture survivors all around the world. I see the wounds and the consequences of a climate of impunity that allows merchants to sell torture instruments freely on the global market. A torture-free trade treaty can prevent torture by regulating and prohibiting the sale of goods used to inflict unimaginable suffering.”

The push for a torture-free trade treaty follows the adoption of the global Arms Trade Treaty by an overwhelming majority of states in 2013, which also converted a patchwork of national and regional laws and regulations into global controls aimed at stopping transfers that fuelled serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Some of the signatories of the declaration said they had worked with victims of torture who had been blinded by rubber bullets, knew pregnant women who had miscarried after exposure to tear gas, people permanently disfigured after beatings with batons, and survivors who were traumatized for life.

Torture destroys the dignity and personalities of people…a treaty would play a tremendous role in assuring that we preserve human dignity.

Alex Kigoye, Programme Manager, African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture

Alex Kigoye, programme manager at the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture, said: “Torture destroys the dignity and personalities of people. It has grievous effects on people and society and a treaty would play a tremendous role in assuring that we preserve human dignity.”

Dr Michael Crowley, from the Omega Research Foundation, said the international nature of the trade, required a multilateral response.

“Omega’s research into the trade in tools of torture has shown that it is currently out of control. It is a global problem, requiring a global response. Through the current UN process, we now have a once in a generation opportunity to bring this trade under control.”

Fatia Maulidiyanti, coordinator with the pan-Asian human rights group Kontras, said restrictions on the trade in tear gas were urgently needed.  

An investigation found the use of tear gas by police inside the Kanjuruhan football stadium in East Java in Indonesia in October 2022 was the major factor in triggering a stampede in which 132 people died in one of the world’s worst sports event disasters.

Lucila Santos from the International Network of Civil Liberties (INCLO) said: “A torture-free trade treaty could take inherently abusive weapons out of circulation and help prevent human rights abuses happening in the streets in the context of protests. Without strong international human rights-based trade controls, protesters across Latin America will continue to suffer severe physical and psychological trauma.”