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Ending Trade in the Tools of Torture

On the UN's International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the best way to honor victims and survivors is to take real action to end the practice globally. To that end, the world needs binding global rules prohibiting trade in instruments whose sole purpose is to inflict pain and suffering on humans.

BRUSSELS – There is no scenario where torture is acceptable or appropriate. Any practice that destroys its victims’ bodies and minds in order to control their will is an affront to the dignity of human beings. And research indicates that torture is, at best, an ineffective means of gathering intelligence; at worst, it can elicit false information, making it counter-productive.

Though torture is strictly forbidden under international law, it remains widespread. On the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, commemorated on June 26, the best way to honor victims and survivors is to take real action to end – or, at least, impede – the practice globally. A good place to start is through international trade.

Though many countries have committed in recent decades to abolishing capital punishment and inhumane treatment and practices, the instruments of torture – such as finger screws, thumb cuffs, leg irons, restraint chairs, spiked batons, and whips embedded with barbs, hooks, or spikes – are still being traded freely across borders. These tools have no purpose beyond inflicting pain and suffering on human beings, yet they continue to cross borders just like any other good.

This is not the case everywhere. Since 2005, the European Union has strictly regulated trade in certain types of equipment and products – such as gallows, electric chairs, and lethal-injection systems – that can be used for capital punishment, torture, and other inhumane treatment. Such goods may never cross EU borders, even for transit.

Such restrictions have made it more difficult to secure the tools needed to carry out inhumane activities. Nonetheless, producers and merchants ultimately manage to circumvent the restrictions, say, by rerouting shipments. Even if this results in higher prices, the deterrent is far from sufficient.

Experience shows that banning trade in tools of torture works. But it also shows that such bans need to be implemented globally to have the maximum impact. As long as most countries do not limit trade in instruments of torture, there will always be ways to avoid those that do.

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That is why, in September 2017, the EU, Argentina, and Mongolia launched the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, aimed explicitly at putting an end to trade in goods whose only purpose is to inflict pain on humans. Today, the Alliance includes nearly 65 countries, representing every inhabited continent.

At its first ministerial meeting last September, the Alliance moved to turn political commitments into action. In a joint communiqué, members agreed to work to create a UN instrument, such as a binding convention, to end trade in the tools of torture.

Less than a year later, we are approaching the first milestone on this journey. This month, the UN General Assembly is expected to pass a resolution aimed at abolishing trade in equipment whose only practical use is torture, with the ultimate goal of ending the production of such equipment. The resolution would effectively launch the process of establishing international rules on these activities, bringing us one step closer to a world without torture.

Getting from resolution to binding international rules will not be easy. But international conventions like the Arms Trade Treaty and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora prove that, with broad international commitment, trade can be made more responsible and humane. Achieving similar success on trade in the tools of torture will require support from more governments around the world.

The EU, which has been in the vanguard of this process from the start, is committed to upholding its leadership role, and it will continue to work with countries everywhere to secure binding rules on trade in tools of torture. This is a central feature of our broader values-based trade agenda.

Of course, rules barring trade in the tools of torture would not end the practice. But they would make things significantly more difficult – and expensive – for torturers, while squeezing producers’ profits enough to encourage them to pursue other opportunities. That would be a major victory. For the sake of those who have endured – and continue to endure – torture, all governments worldwide should come together to achieve it.

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