Stop the Torture Trade
Torture predates the development of the corporation. But corporations are entangled in the modern-day commerce in devices of torture.
In a new report, Amnesty International shines a spotlight on the makers of law enforcement equipment and how their devices are used by torturers around the world (including in the United States).
Amnesty has compiled a list of more than 80 U.S. manufacturers and suppliers of electro-shock weapons and restraints. Amnesty does not allege that any one or another of these companies is involved in the international trade in equipment used in torture. But Amnesty's report, "Stopping the Torture Trade," does provide numerous examples of U.S. products being used by torturers overseas, as well as in the United States.
We thought it'd be interesting to call up these companies and ask: Do you sell to known human rights abusers? Do you screen the persons or agencies to whom you sell domestically, to make sure they are not selling or exporting them to human rights abusers?
So we started calling through the list. What immediately became apparent is the extent to which the industry is populated by small equipment makers and even smaller suppliers and distributors. As answering machines picked up call after call to the companies' main numbers, it became obvious how tiny most of these operations are.
Some of the equipment makers and sellers we reached were familiar with the Amnesty report, and some weren't. Not surprisingly, of the ones we reached, and who agreed to speak with us, none tried to justify the use of their equipment for torture.
Several of the companies said they only sell to domestic law enforcement agencies. That's not totally comforting to those aware of the brutal practices of far too many police in the United States, but it is hard to fault the companies for selling legitimate law enforcement equipment (such as handcuffs) to domestic police forces.
None of the domestic-only companies to which we spoke employ measures to block resale and export, though the companies selling to law enforcement agencies argued that those agencies were unlikely to sell their equipment abroad.
We talked to one of the handful of major corporate players in the law enforcement equipment business, Peerless Handcuffs. Their spokesperson refused to give us his name.
Peerless does export a variety of restraints, including leg cuffs.
The chapter of Amnesty's report on restraints used in torture begins with a gruesome anecdote from southern Lebanon. The Khiam detention center, closed in May 2000, "had been run by the South Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy militia in the former occupied south Lebanon, with the involvement of the Israeli army, but the handcuffs used to suspend detainees from an electricity pylon where they were doused with water and given electric shocks were clearly marked "The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA,'" Amnesty reports.
In a letter to Amnesty, Peerless expressed disgust that its products were used in the Khiam prison, stating, "In no way does Peerless Handcuff Company condone or support the use of our products for torture or for any other human rights abuse. É We have not sold any restraints to the Israeli government or Israeli companies in almost 10 years."
We asked our anonymous representative at Peerless, Do you take steps to control the sale of equipment to torturers? "We restrict our sales as best we can to what we know are legitimate law enforcement authorities," he replied.
Since it is often the case that it is "legitimate" law enforcement authorities who are the torturers, we asked if Peerless has refused orders.
The answer is yes. The company refuses to sell to, among other countries, China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, and has turned down sales requests from these and other nations. But it is not as if Peerless is reading Amnesty International reports before establishing its sales screens.
"We have no interest in promoting" sales to torturers, the Peerless spokesperson said. But, he added, "I donÕt think manufacturers can be held responsible" for misuse by law enforcement agencies.
We don't agree. Anyone selling equipment prone to abuse by torturers has a special obligation to make sure it doesn't wind up in the hands of people with a record of human rights abuses.
However, what is clear from our brief survey of some of the equipment makers and suppliers is that a corporate liability system will not adequately address the problem. The companies are too small and diffuse to be controlled exclusively through such mechanisms. One that closes today can reopen tomorrow under another name. Governmental regulation is essential.
Amnesty International is urging the United States and other governments to ban the use, manufacture, promotion and trade of police and security equipment whose use is inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading. The group includes leg irons, electro-shock stun belts and inherently painful devices such as serrated thumbcuffs in this category. Amnesty is calling for a suspension on the use and trade in devices, such as electro-shock equipment, whose medical effects are not fully known. Amnesty is also calling for a suspension of trade in equipment that has shown a substantial risk of abuse or unwarranted injury, including equipment such as legcuffs, thumbcuffs, restraint chairs and pepper gas weapons.
It is crucially important that the United States act immediately in these areas, says Amnesty International USA spokesperson Alistair Hodgett. The United States has led the way in the development of new technologies used in torture, such as electro-shock devices. After export, they have quickly been replicated and spread around the world.
There's no significant lobby for law enforcement equipment exports -- U.S. exports total only about $32 million a year. There's no conceivable excuse for a failure to stop the torture trade.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).