Human Rights Classroom: Global Torture Trade Has nothing to do with us in Hong Kong?

21 Jan

Human Rights Classroom: Global Torture Trade Has nothing to do with us in Hong Kong?

Amnesty International has published multiple investigative reports on Hong Kong police’s use of excessive force during 2019 protests, including the abusive use of tear gas and police batons, and the alleged torture and ill treatment of arrestees under police custody (see report). Torture is no longer a remote and irrelevant issue for Hong Kong people. Moreover, China is also a leading manufacturer and exporter of tools of torture. The number of Chinese companies involved in developing, manufacturing and exporting tools of torture has increased by 100 in the past decade.  

Why should we put a stop to the torture trade and step up regulations of law enforcement equipment?

Nowadays, most countries have already established laws against torture, and torture is also explicitly prohibited in numerous international human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT). However, Amnesty International in the report “Ending the Torture Trade: the path to global controls on the tools of torture” has recorded torture and other ill-treatment in over 140 countries in the past 5 years. It is evident that the risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment has gone beyond detention settings. On the street, legitimate law enforcement equipment are more frequently used against citizens and protesters.  Torture remains a severe and common human rights violation at the global level.

What are tools of torture?

Tools of torture can be divided into two distinct categories: “inherently abusive equipment” and “law-enforcement equipment abused or misused”. The former category refers to inherently cruel, inhuman and degrading law enforcement equipment and weapons, which are designed to inflict unnecessary pain on human body.  The use of these equipment completely violates international laws and standards, e.g. UNCAT. Hence, all states  should prohibit the production, trade, export and use of such equipment. Nowadays, only a handful of countries continue to manufacture and export this category of tools of torture. In contrast, the latter category consists of equipment that  have a legitimate function when used in strict accordance with international standards, but they can be, and readily are, abused and misused by law enforcement officials to torture or ill-treat people. Therefore, all states should strengthen the regulations on the use and the global trade of these equipment to protect human rights.

1. Electric shock devices

According to Amnesty International, electric shock weapons (such as electric stun belts, vests and batons) are some of the most frequently used tools of tortures worldwide. Witnesses said they have been tortured by such tools in the prisons in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia and Tennessee USA. Take electric shock baton as an example,  the user can send off extremely painful electric shocks at the push of a button, and to repeatedly do this without leaving lasting identifiable physical traces on the victim’s body. It is a very handy and powerful  tool of torture.

2. Abusive restraint devices

Artist impression of ‘hanging restraint chair’. Credit: Baodiucao

Abusive restraint devices such as “Four-piece suit”, “Tiger” restraint chairs, restraint beds and leg shackles, can make the victims suffer from pain, injuries and even breathing difficulties. Prolonged restriction on the movement of limbs can also hinder blood circulation, and to a severe extent can cause tissue necrosis and physical disabilities. Amnesty International has recorded the use of abusive restraint devices in the juvenile detention centers in Spain and the prisons in China.

3. Spiked batons

Spiked baton is a police baton inlaid with hard rubber or metal spikes, which can inflict serious pain and severe injuries. The European Union (EU) has prohibited its member states from purchasing and trading spiked batons, as not only do these batons cause pain, there is no scientific proof that these spiked batons are more effective than  the regular police batons in terms of law enforcement and self-defense.

Photo credit: Omega Research Foundation

4. Less lethal projectile weapons

Projectile weapons such as tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bags are in nder this category. Amnesty International has  recorded the abuse of tear gas in at least 22 countries and regions in the past 3 years. The report has also documented the incident of Hong Kong police repeatedly firing tear gas inside the Kwai Fong Mass Transit Railway station in August 2019. According to “UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms”, law enforcement officials should not fire tear gas in confined spaces. Moreover, projectile weapons should not be used indoors or in areas with low visibility, and it cannot be fired directly towards human body. It is also necessary to ensure that the exits are not blocked and people can evacuate in a crowd control setting.

Photo credit: South China Morning Post

5. Beatings with Batons

Police batons are perhaps the most commonly equipped law enforcement tools for most police forces around the world, but the abusive use of such equipment can constitute torture and inhuman treatment. According to “UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms”, law enforcement officials may only resort to the use of force if non-violent means remain ineffective in preventing others from exercising violence. If the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must act in proportion to the seriousness of protesters’ offence. Amnesty International has documented multiple occurrences of police illegal use of force, including beatings of protesters who posed no threat and those who were already attempting to leave a demonstration. If the police officers continue to beat the protesters who have already been brought under control , it is considered excessive use of force and will violate international human rights standards.

Photo credit: Jimmy Lam @everydayaphoto

What can we do to halt the global trade in tools of torture?

Since 2000, many countries have promised to strengthen the regulations of the torture trade through UN mechanism and regional cooperation. For instance, EU passed a legally binding regulation in 2006 to prohibit the use of “inherently abusive equipment” and to better regulate the export of regular law-enforcement equipment. Amnesty International will continue to promote the “Anti-torture trade framework” through independent investigations and global initiatives, in an effort to encourage more countries to strengthen their control on domestic exports of tools of torture and related technologies.