Stop the Torture Trade

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 States.


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



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


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.


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.


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.


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."


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.


it is often the case that it is "legitimate" law enforcement authorities who are

the torturers, we asked if Peerless has refused orders.


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.


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.


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).

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