The Business of Torture
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Written January 17, 2003
Updated March 9, 2005
On January 16, 2003, the European Court of Human Rights agreed -
more than two years after the applications have been filed - to hear six cases
filed by Chechens against Russia. The claimants accuse the Russian military of
torture and indiscriminate killings. The Court has ruled in the past against the
Russian Federation and awarded assorted plaintiffs thousands of euros per case
As awareness of human rights increased, as their definition
expanded and as new, often authoritarian polities, resorted to torture and
repression - human rights advocates and non-governmental organizations
proliferated. It has become a business in its own right: lawyers, consultants,
psychologists, therapists, law enforcement agencies, scholars and pundits
tirelessly peddle books, seminars, conferences, therapy sessions for victims,
court appearances and other services.
Human rights activists target mainly countries and
In June 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a
lawsuit on behalf of 11 villagers against the American oil behemoth, ExxonMobile,
for "abetting" abuses in Aceh, Indonesia. They alleged that the company provided
the army with equipment for digging mass graves and helped in the construction
of interrogation and torture centers.
In November 2002, the law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld &
Toll joined other American and South African law firms in filing a complaint
that "seeks to hold businesses responsible for aiding and abetting the apartheid
regime in South Africa ... forced labor, genocide, extrajudicial killing,
torture, sexual assault, and unlawful detention".
Among the accused: "IBM and ICL which provided the computers
that enabled South Africa to ... control the black South African population. Car
manufacturers provided the armored vehicles that were used to patrol the
townships. Arms manufacturers violated the embargoes on sales to South Africa,
as did the oil companies. The banks provided the funding that enabled South
Africa to expand its police and security apparatus."
Charges were leveled against Unocal in Myanmar and dozens of
other multinationals. In September 2002, Berger & Montague filed a class action
complaint against Royal Dutch Petroleum and Shell Transport. The oil giants are
charged with "purchasing ammunition and using ... helicopters and boats and
providing logistical support for 'Operation Restore Order in Ogoniland'" which
was designed, according to the law firm, to "terrorize the civilian population
into ending peaceful protests against Shell's environmentally unsound oil
exploration and extraction activities".
The defendants in all these court cases strongly deny any
But this is merely one facet of the torture business.
Torture implements are produced - mostly in the West - and sold
openly, frequently to nasty regimes in developing countries and even through the
Internet. Hi-tech devices abound: sophisticated electroconvulsive stun guns,
painful restraints, truth serums, chemicals such as pepper gas. Export licensing
is universally minimal and non-intrusive and completely ignores the technical
specifications of the goods (for instance, whether they could be lethal, or
merely inflict pain).
Amnesty International and the UK-based Omega Foundation, found
more than 150 manufacturers of stun guns in the USA alone. They face tough
competition from Germany (30 companies), Taiwan (19), France (14), South Korea
(13), China (12), South Africa (nine), Israel (eight), Mexico (six), Poland
(four), Russia (four), Brazil (three), Spain (three) and the Czech Republic
Many torture implements pass through "off-shore" supply networks
in Austria, Canada, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macedonia, Albania,
Russia, Israel, the Philippines, Romania and Turkey. This helps European Union
based companies circumvent legal bans at home. The US government has
traditionally turned a blind eye to the international trading of such gadgets.
American high-voltage electro-shock stun shields turned up in
Turkey, stun guns in Indonesia, and electro-shock batons and shields, and
dart-firing taser guns in torture-prone Saudi Arabia. American firms are the
dominant manufacturers of stun belts. Explains Dennis Kaufman, President of Stun
Tech Inc, a US manufacturer of this innovation: ''Electricity speaks every
language known to man. No translation necessary. Everybody is afraid of
electricity, and rightfully so.'' (Quoted by Amnesty International).
The Omega Foundation and Amnesty claim that 49 US companies are
also major suppliers of mechanical restraints, including leg-irons and
thumbcuffs. But they are not alone. Other suppliers are found in Germany (8),
France (5), China (3), Taiwan (3), South Africa (2), Spain (2), the UK (2) and
South Korea (1).
Not surprisingly, the Commerce Department doesn't keep tab on
this category of exports.
Nor is the money sloshing around negligible. Records kept under
the export control commodity number A985 show that Saudi Arabia alone spent in
the United States more than $1 million a year between 1997-2000 merely on stun
guns. Venezuela's bill for shock batons and such reached $3.7 million in the
same period. Other clients included Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mexico and - surprisingly
- Bulgaria. Egypt's notoriously brutal services - already well-equipped - spent
a mere $40,000.
The United States is not the only culprit. The European
Commission, according to an Amnesty International report titled "Stopping the
Torture Trade" and published in 2001:
"Gave a quality award to a Taiwanese electro-shock baton, but
when challenged could not cite evidence as to independent safety tests for such
a baton or whether member states of the European Union (EU) had been consulted.
Most EU states have banned the use of such weapons at home, but French and
German companies are still allowed to supply them to other countries."
Torture expertise is widely proffered by former soldiers, agents
of the security services made redundant, retired policemen and even rogue
medical doctors. China, Israel, South Africa, France, Russia, the United kingdom
and the United States are founts of such useful knowledge and its propagators.
How rooted torture is was revealed in September 1996 when the US
Department of Defense admitted that ''intelligence training manuals'' were used
in the Federally sponsored School of the Americas - one of 150 such facilities -
between 1982 and 1991.The manuals, written in Spanish and used to train
thousands of Latin American security agents, "advocated execution, torture,
beatings and blackmail", says Amnesty International.
Where there is demand there is supply. Rather than ignore the discomfiting
subject, governments would do well to legalize and supervise it. Alan Dershowitz,
a prominent American criminal defense attorney, proposed, in an op-ed article in
the Los Angeles Times, published November 8, 2001, to legalize torture in
extreme cases and to have judges issue "torture warrants". This may be a radical
departure from the human rights tradition of the civilized world. But dispensing
export carefully reviewed licenses for dual-use implements is a different matter
altogether - and long overdue.
About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" and
"After the Rain - How the West Lost the East". He is a columnist in "Central
Europe Review", United Press International (UPI) and ebookweb.org and the editor
of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory,
Suite101 and searcheurope.com. Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor
to the Government of Macedonia.
His web site:
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-11-03 23:11:24 in Economic Articles