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It Is Time to Halt the Torture Trade
Published on Saturday, April 7, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune
It Is Time to Halt the Torture Trade
by Cesar Chelala
 
NEW YORK - A few related events recently took place that highlight the importance of the torture weapons trade, and the role that private companies in some countries, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, have in it. Their role was stressed in a new document from Amnesty International called "Stopping the Torture Trade," which calls for halting the production and trade of torture weapons.
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The release of this document comes at the same time as the U.S. State Department report on human rights around the world, the accusation against General Hernan Gabrielli of the Chilean Air Force for his participation in torture of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime and an Argentine judge's decision to overturn amnesty laws dictated by the military.
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The Argentine laws protected from prosecution hundreds of soldiers and officers who were accused of torture, murder and kidnapping during the military rule from 1976 to 1983, thus potentially opening the way for a wave of trials.
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According to Amnesty International, U.S. companies - as well as companies from the United Kingdom, France and Russia - manufacture and sell weapons and other equipment used for torture.
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Among them are high-tech electroshock weapons, leg irons and serrated thumb cuffs designed to tear flesh if a detainee intends to escape. Amnesty International believes such devices are "inherently cruel" and their trade should be banned outright.
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The United States is the largest supplier of electro-shock devices. According to Amnesty, 86 U.S. companies manufactured, marketed or sold electro-shock devices during the 1990s. William Schulz, head of the U.S. chapter of the London-based human rights group, stated: "These weapons are used against many people who should be heroes to Americans."
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In many countries electro-shock has been routinely used against political prisoners. Such devices have also been used against children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the mentally ill.
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The Amnesty report also indicates that the United States, as well the United Kingdom, China, France and Russia, are among the main providers worldwide of training to military, police and security forces of foreign states. Because those forces are the main users of torture technique and equipment, stopping torture means stopping as well the trade and the training that helps create those "professional torturers."
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Even though it is illegal to own some of this equipment in the United States, the U.S. Department of Commerce has granted licenses for their export under the category of "crime control equipment," for sales that amount to $97 million since 1997. Data from that Department also show that Saudi Arabia, Russia, Taiwan, Israel and Egypt are among the major recipients of U.S. equipment.
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"It is unconscionable," Mr. Schultz said, "that while the State Department promotes human rights, the Department of Commerce has approved export licenses to countries that our own government documents as committing torture."
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Perhaps all countries should follow in the steps of President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who has given human rights a special prominence. In a speech at Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights he declared, "We are going to eradicate torture forever."
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Mariclaire Acosta, Mr. Fox's top human rights official, stated that the problem of torture in Mexico is of considerable magnitude, and it is necessary to build great public will to eliminate it. As Amnesty indicates, "Torture doesn't happen in a vacuum. If the governments of the world had the political will to stop torture they could do so."
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Coming on the heels of the State Department assessment on human rights abuses around the world, the Amnesty International report on the torture trade should be a sobering reminder of every country's responsibility in its elimination.
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The writer is an international medical consultant, and a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights in Argentina. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune

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