Preventing the Trade in Tools of Torture and Execution The Omega Research Foundation's work towards effective international controls

Djoka, a 16-year-old boy from Sudan, arrived in Italy on 7 June 2016. He fled the conflict in Darfur, which killed his father. When he was disembarked in Sicily, he was taken to a police station and detained there. He told Amnesty International:

“After three days… they took me to the ‘electricity room’. … The police then asked me to give fingerprints. I refused. Then they gave me electricity with a stick, many times on the left leg, then on the right leg, chest and belly. I was too weak, I couldn’t resist."

Whilst almost anything can be used to execute, torture and abuse, such acts are often committed using mass manufactured law enforcement equipment and weapons. Prior to the Omega Research Foundation (Omega) and Amnesty International’s work, the trade in such “tools of torture and execution” was largely unknown and unregulated. This allowed companies from all regions of the world to develop, manufacture, advertise, sell and export such technologies used for execution and torture - and to profit from human suffering and cruelty. Three inter-related issues needed tackling:

"the obligation to prevent torture in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment necessarily includes the enactment of measures to stop the trade in instruments that can easily be used to inflict torture and ill-treatment" Professor Theo van Boven, then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

1. inherently abusive equipment and weapons

Despite the absolute prohibition on torture being clearly established in international law, technology with no purpose other than for torture or ill-treatment was still being widely produced, promoted and transferred between states in all regions of the world. Examples of such inherently abusive equipment include:

Spiked batons

Spiked batons and other spiked weapons and devices such as spiked shields, made of metal or other materials, have been widely marketed to law enforcement officials. But striking an individual with such a weapon could never be justified as a legitimate law enforcement action. Any use would amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Direct contact electric shock

Direct contact electric shock weapons and equipment including electric shock stun guns, stun batons and stun shields have been developed, traded and employed by police and security forces throughout the world. The ability to apply extremely painful high voltage electric shocks at the push of a button, including to very sensitive parts of a person’s body, and to repeatedly do this without leaving long-lasting identifiable physical traces, makes them a favoured tool of torture.

body worn electric shock

Body worn electric shock devices are attached to prisoners’ bodies and worn, sometimes for hours at a time, with the constant threat that they may be triggered at any moment. They can be activated by remote control from up to 100 metres away, delivering an electric shock of up to 50,000 volts. Companies manufacture a range of body worn electric shock devices including 'stun belts', 'stun cuffs', 'stun vests' and 'stun sleeves - designed to be placed on various limbs or body parts.

Wall and floor restraints

Restraints fixed to a wall or floor have been developed in various forms including: single wall cuffs for ankle or wrist; fixed attachments such as rings or hooks; or elaborate four-point restraints for securing a detainee’s ankles and wrists to the wall or floor. Human rights monitors have repeatedly documented inmates remaining chained to fixed objects for dangerously long periods of time and/or being restrained whilst other torture or abuse was perpetrated.

"Persons taken into police custody should not be left handcuffed to rings fixed to a wall and instead should be accommodated without delay in rooms/cells offering appropriate security conditions" The Committee for the Prevention of Torture, council of europe


Thumb-cuffs are designed to be attached around detainees’ thumbs. Various types are available including fixed thumb-cuffs with a bar of metal with holes for the thumbs; thumb-cuffs connected by chains or a hinge. The cuffs may or may not have serrated inner edges. Thumb-cuffs have been widely marketed by law enforcement and security equipment distributors throughout the world. However, they pose a risk of direct injury by excessive pressure upon the detainee's thumbs and a high risk of injury by fracture of delicate bones or nerve damage. Furthermore there is an increased risk of injury from falls because the detainee cannot cushion the fall. The practical utility of thumb-cuffs for legitimate law enforcement purposes is unproven, whilst there is a history of their use to fix detainees in ‘stress positions’ amounting to torture and other ill-treatment.

2. law enforcement equipment

There has been little control over the export and transfer of a wide range of law enforcement equipment and weapons which may have a legitimate purpose under certain circumstances, but are nevertheless often misused for torture and abuse. Such weapons and equipment include:

restraint chairs

Restraint Chairs consist of a metal or wooden framed chair into which individuals are held by straps or restraints at various points including the wrist, elbow, shoulder, chest, waist, thigh or ankle. Some chairs use handcuffs or other metal restraints and are inherently abusive - any use would amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and such devices should be prohibited. Other devices use fabric strap restraints - but they too serve no legitimate law enforcement function that cannot be effectively accomplished with safer alternatives. The only conceivable use is a medical, where their use for short periods under close medical supervision may be justified in certain extremely limited circumstances i.e. to prevent agitated patients harming themselves or others. However, they can be readily misused. Amnesty International has documented prisoners being secured in such chairs for excessive periods of time, or to secure prisoners whilst other torture or ill-treatment was carried out on them.


Handcuffs can be a legitimate law enforcement tool if used appropriately, but are frequently misused to inflict torture or ill-treatment. Human rights monitors have highlighted numerous and widespread cases of handcuffs applied for unnecessarily long periods, being over tightened, being used to enforce stress positions and being used to hit people. There have been numerous reports of individuals being suspended by handcuffs so that other torture can be perpetrated.

Batons and other hand held impact devices

Batons and truncheons may have a legitimate law enforcement use if used appropriately, for instance in the disarming of an individual who poses a serious threat. However, Amnesty International have highlighted numerous and widespread examples of batons being misused to inflict torture or other ill treatment, including beatings and sexual abuses. Other devices such as sjamboks and similar law enforcement whips have no legitimate law enforcement function, but are frequently misused to inflict torture or ill-treatment.

fOLLWING A VISIT TO VARNA PRISON, BULGARIA IN 2014, the CPT stated that, “In some isolated cases, it heard allegations of ill-treatment of such a severity that it would amount to torture... truncheon blows on the soles of the feet [AND] blows with truncheons inflicted to a person attached with handcuffs to hooks fixed to a door frame, and thus immobilised in a hyperextended position.

Riot control agents (rca) - tear gas and pepper spray

Tear gas, pepper spray and other toxic chemicals are commonly used around the world by law enforcement officials, both for crowd control as well as for arrest and restraint of individuals. However they are can easily be misused including in police or prison cells and detention centres to ill-treat and torture individuals or during policing of public assemblies to ill-treat and punish people on a large scale. When tear gas or pepper spray is used in excessive quantities or in confined spaces where people cannot disperse, the toxic properties of the agents can lead to serious injury or death, particularly to vulnerable individuals.

3. death penalty equipment

Although the vast majority of states have either absolutely outlawed the death penalty or no longer execute people in practice, over 50 states still retain the death penalty and 993 people were executed in 2017. Yet even states that prohibited capital punishment had no mechanisms preventing companies from manufacturing, promoting or exporting death penalty equipment, such as electric-chairs, gallows, or guillotines. They also failed to adequately regulate the export of certain drugs (which had legitimate medical applications) to ensure they were not sent to certain prisons for misuse in lethal injection executions.

Pharmaceutical chemicals used for judicial executions

Lethal injection is the practice of executing a person to implement a judicial sentence of death using a lethal combination and/or dosage of drugs administered intravenously. This method of execution is allowed by law in China, Guatemala, the Maldives, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, Thailand, United States of America, and Vietnam.

In summary, effective national, regional and international measures to tackle the trade in “tools of torture and execution” were urgently needed.

establishing a precedent: the eu torture trade regulation

Efforts by Omega and Amnesty International to address this problem focused first on the European Union, the world’s largest regional trading bloc, and home to many companies profiting from the transfer of "tools of torture and execution". Omega and Amnesty International undertook research and advocacy calling for the establishment of regional controls in this area.

Our work led to the adoption of European Council (EC) Regulation No. 1236/2005 concerning trade in goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (the Torture Trade Regulation) in May 2005. The purpose of this ground-breaking Regulation, which applied to all EU Member States, was:

  • To completely ban the import and export of goods which "have no practical use other than for the purpose of capital punishment" or "for the purpose of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".
  • To introduce EU wide export controls on a number of items that "could be used” for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Companies have to apply for a permit to export these items. If there are reasonable grounds to believe this equipment may be employed for such purposes by the end-user, permission to export will be refused.

The introduction of the Torture Trade Regulation was an unprecedented milestone, introducing the world’s first regional mechanism to tackle the trade in tools of torture.

Building on success: strengthening eu-wide measures

"From lethal drug injection systems to electric chairs or spiked batons, such terrible devices have no place in our societies. In addition to prohibiting sales and exports, we are now banning the promotion of these goods at fairs and exhibitions, and introducing a fast-track mechanism to make sure that new products of this kind can be banned quickly. It's imperative that we can keep up with new developments." EU Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, October 2016

However there were shortcomings in the original Regulation, which did not prohibit trade in some types of inherently abusive equipment, nor adequately control other law enforcement equipment regularly misused for torture. Furthermore, the Regulation’s effectiveness was limited by weak or non-existent implementation by certain EU Member States.

Since it came into force in 2006, Omega, working with Amnesty International, has continued to monitor the operation of the Torture Trade Regulation in all EU Member States. We have highlighted breaches by EU and non-EU companies operating within the EU, and by gathering such evidence, we have convinced EU Member States and the European Commission to strengthen both the text of the Regulation and its implementation.

An important advance occurred in 2013 with the establishment by the European Commission of an ‘Expert Group’ to further strengthen the Regulation. The Expert Group included staff from Omega and the anti-death penalty NGO Reprieve, together with the former president of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and a number of medical professionals.

The Expert Group recommended the significant expansion in the lists of inherently abusive equipment whose trade should be prohibited, and also the list of law enforcement equipment whose trade should be controlled. Following the Expert Group’s work, and Omega and Amnesty International's recommendations, the Commission proposed new mechanisms to strengthen operation of the Regulation and expand the range of trading activities it covered. Throughout this process, Amnesty International and Omega supported the Commission's work to strengthen the Regulation and highlighted areas where additional measures were required.

case study: the promotion of prohibited goods in paris

In May 2016, Omega and Amnesty International presented evidence that EU and non-EU companies which exhibited at the Milipol military, security and policing trade fair in Paris in November 2015, had distributed marketing materials promoting banned torture equipment including thumb cuffs, spiked batons and weighted leg restraints. Companies had also physically displayed weighted leg irons and a banned spiked shield. It is unclear how they managed to do this when the import of these items into France is explicitly prohibited under the Torture Trade Regulation. In its response to Omega and Amnesty International, the French Government declared their support for “an ambitious revision of the Regulation… especially regarding prohibiting the promotion of products prohibited by the Regulation.” The evidence provided by Omega and Amnesty International led EU Member States to agree to ban the promotion of prohibited goods with no use other than inflicting the death penalty, torture or ill-treatment. In 2017, prohibited goods were again exhibited and promoted by companies at the Milipol 2017 trade fair in Paris, leading to the closure of one exhibitors' stand and removal of materials from other exhibitors.

Following extensive consultations, debate and revision amongst the European Commission, Council and Parliament the original Regulation was significantly strengthened in 2014 and further in 2016 by the introduction of two binding legal instruments (Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 775/2014 and Regulation (EU) 2016/2134 of the European Parliament and of the Council). The current EU wide measures addressed many (but not all) of the loopholes that had been identified by Omega and Amnesty International (and Reprieve for death penalty drugs), including:

  • Prohibiting training on goods that have no purpose other than torture and ill-treatment and the death penalty.
  • Prohibiting advertising these goods on the internet, TV, radio or at trade fairs.
  • Controlling the export of certain pharmaceutical chemicals that could be misused for conducting lethal injection executions (without endangering the supply of such chemicals for legitimate medical purposes).
  • Expanding the range of equipment covered by the Regulation. For example thumb-cuffs, wall cuffs, certain restraint chairs, shackle-boards and shackle-beds are now classed as goods with no use other than torture and ill-treatment and their trade is absolutely prohibited. Similarly the list of law enforcement equipment that can be misused for torture and ill-treatment has also been updated so that , for example, a permit is required before the export of spit hoods and devices disseminating chemical irritants over wide areas.
  • Adding an “urgency procedure”. This will enable the EU to more quickly prohibit transfers of new types of equipment judged to be inherently abusive; and control exports of new equipment that could be readily misused for torture, or new pharmaceutical chemicals that could be misused for lethal injection executions.

"Today's vote in the European Parliament underscores the importance the European Union attaches to respect for fundamental rights. As the European Union, we promote the global abolition of the death penalty with all the means, tools and instruments that are available to us. The eradication of torture as well as the abolition of the death penalty requires political will and a joint effort of parliaments and civil society across the world. Today we are demonstrating that our European Union has always been and will remain at the frontline of this work". High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini

developing trade controls: beyond the eu

The Torture Trade Regulation is a valuable tool for states to combat the EU trade in tools of torture and has established an important precedent, but tackling this trade globally needs concerted action by states in other regions beyond the EU, and also at the international level. In recent years, exciting advances have been made, including:

Progress at the Council of Europe (CoE), which comprises 47 Member States including the EU, the Russian Federation and Turkey. Following Omega’s research and documentation of the trade in tools of torture and our subsequent advocacy work in collaboration with Amnesty International, the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE unanimously adopted a Resolution in January 2018 calling on all CoE Member States to introduce national regulations tackling the trade in “tools of torture”, and called on the CoE institutions to apply the approach set out in the EU Torture Trade Regulation to collectively address the trade across the whole CoE. In September 2018, the Committee of Ministers of the CoE agreed and stated that: "strengthening international regulations against trade in goods used for torture and the death penalty would be a useful addition to efforts at European and global levels to prohibit torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and abolish the death penalty" and tasked the Steering Committee for Human Rights to prepare a study to gauge the feasibility of a legal instrument.

Recognition by the United Nations General Assembly of this issue, through the adoption of the bi-annual torture resolution, which calls upon; "All States to take appropriate effective… measures to prevent and prohibit the production, trade, export, import and use of equipment that have no practical use other than for the purpose of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

A route to action in Africa, through the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the Robben Island Guidelines for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture in Africa which calls for states to: "prohibit and prevent the use, production and trade of equipment or substances designed to inflict torture or ill-treatment and the abuse of any other equipment or substance to these ends."

The creation of the global Alliance for Torture Free Trade, launched in September 2017 by the EU, Argentina and Mongolia at the United Nations. To date 57 states, plus the EU, have signed up to its Political Declaration, which commits its members to act together to further prevent, restrict and end trade in goods intended for use in torture or capital punishment. Omega together with Amnesty International provided information on the global trade in tools of torture and advised the EU and other states in developing the Alliance and actively participated in the launch itself. On 24th September 2018 the first Ministerial meeting of the Alliance took place. Omega and Amnesty International launched their latest joint briefing 'Combating Torture - the need for comprehensive regulation of law enforcement equipment' to inform Alliance members on legislative and policy options for combating the trade in tools of torture and execution and controlling the trade in law enforcement equipment. A further five states joined the Alliance at this meeting.

Omega recommendations for combatting the trade in tools of torture and execution

Law enforcement weapons and devices should never be supplied to recipients who are likely to use them for torture, other ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations. The Omega Research Foundation together with Amnesty International have jointly called on all states to incorporate into their legal frameworks the following five principles:

A ban on the production of, and trade in, inherently inhumane law enforcement equipment and related training; and specifically designed execution technologies.

Strict, risk-based restrictions on the trade in law enforcement equipment that could be easily misused for torture and other ill-treatment.

A comprehensive national trade control system to vet prospective transfers of controlled equipment taking into account relevant information derived from UN, regional and national human rights monitors.

State - state information sharing on the trade in “tools of torture and execution technologies” and annual public reporting of state sanctioned transfers.

Harmonised regional and international measures to effectively the trade in “tools of torture and execution”.

Omega will continue its work on these issues and developments, guided by the key principles listed above. Please visit our website or follow us on twitter @Omega_RF for latest updates. Donate here to support our work

All Images copyright Omega Research Foundation or Amnesty International. For queries or for permission to use any images, please email info@omegaresearchfoundation.org. Images are used for illustrative purposes and do not imply wrongdoing by any company.

This document has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the Omega Research Foundation and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union. The implementing partners under this EU-funded project are: Institute for Security Studies (South Africa), Justiça Global (Brazil), Legal Resources Centre (South Africa) and Omega Research Foundation (UK). Associates are The Commission for “the Disappeared” and Victims of Violence – KontraS (Indonesia) and Amnesty International.
Omega believes that the Regulation should act as a precedent for the introduction of similar controls in other regions and lead to the development of much needed international action. We call upon the international community to move forwards, without delay, in preventing the trade in tools of torture and execution.
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