Stop the Torture Trade
By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
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
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
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
Since it is often the case that it is "legitimate" law enforcement
authorities who are the torturers, we asked if Peerless has refused
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 donŐt 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
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).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman