FIGHTING TRADE In Tools of Torture And Executions

In this post, Dr Steve Wright takes a look at the trade in torture tools, and long-standing attempts to counter it.


According to a news statement from the European Commission, the “trade in torture tools is booming in the world.” This is a shocking reality, since most people believe that era ended with the Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition but today there are more tools of torture hard at work in prisons rather than in museums of ancient barbarity where they belong.

Last week, the European Parliamentary Research Service published a new briefing  on what Europe has been doing to fight the trade in tools for torture and execution. I was a member of the expert panel who drew up the new guidelines

Speaking at a CEASR lecture here last month, I talked about how the new regulations came about. In 1995, I was Director of the Research organisation, the Omega Foundation  and a consultant on the award winning Channel 4 documentary – The Torture Trail.

In fact I wrote the influential 1998 Appraisal Of technology of Political Control which advocated a new ban of exports of torture and execution systems. That work was followed by explicit proposals for new EU export policy.  It seemed that at last Europe was about to Civilize the Torture Trade. But in fact progress on a new regulation was glacial.  Today the  Omega Research foundation continues to work with Amnesty International to halt such exports.


It seems unbelievable that 13 years have had to pass before multilateral regulations can be agreed. Imagine the furore there would be if governments around Europe sat on their hands in response to ongoing terrorist attacks. How could any government reject such proposals? Yet right now it remains a work in progress awaiting committee approval and adoption. But already, the regulations are having an impact as US prisons holding death row inmates. As the supply chain of EU pharmaceuticals to the dries up, the number of executions is dropping too, with executions in America now at their lowest level for 40 years.

It is difficult to bring about international change in political violence. What can work best is often a form of political jiu-jitsu, in this instance a form of counter-shock which challenges “push buton” torture and execution. This is still a work in progress and as experts some of us were saying the regulations did not go far enough. We advocated the adoption of “targeted end use” clauses , which allowed for a more holistic approach, rather than a piece by piece denial of specific torture weapons, which can be got around by innovation. The reality of US States experimenting, often disastrously, with new chemical execution cocktails, is a case in point. Alas, extra-judicial drone execution of foreigners is for now beyond the scope of such legislation.Even though execution as a government service continues to thrive, over half the world’s nations now outlaw it. Next week I will be in London for an international summit looking at a ban on weapons that decide for themselves, who to kill.

Dr Steve Wright  is a Reader in Politics and Applied Global Ethics, at Leeds Beckett University.


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