Shoreditch, in East London, isn’t an especially obvious place to hold an international summit, but its hipster pubs and pervasive street art obscure its deeper history. Shoreditch is where William Shakespeare staged his first plays, and centuries later during World War II, the working class neighborhood was pulverized by Nazi bombers. It is now where Amnesty International, the world’s biggest human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), has its current UK headquarters and Action Centre.
Last week I joined representatives of more than thirty other human rights organizations from around the world who came to East London to discuss the need for a Torture-Free Trade Treaty. The summit was convened by a core group consisting of Amnesty International, CVT, Omega Research Foundation and the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. But the summit was also attended by human rights organizations from across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, including the African Centre for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, American Civil Liberties Union, Asia Alliance Against Torture, Comision Mexicana de Defensa y Promocion de los Derechos Humanos, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and many others.
The result of the two-day summit was the “Shoreditch Declaration” – a joint commitment to campaign to get the United Nations to restrict the trade in goods used to torture our fellow human beings.
According to the UN, in 2022 there were 10 million people around the world who were in detention, with far too many being held on dubious charges resulting from exercising the universal right to protest or for defending human rights. Despite the fact that it is illegal everywhere and always, a disturbingly high number of these detainees face the threat of torture. Part of the reason is that there are very few international laws that regulate the trade of goods that are used in torture. This includes legitimate law enforcement equipment that is misused to attack protestors or torture detainees. But it also includes goods that have no legitimate use other than to be used in torture – like spiked batons, electric shock belts and heavily-weighted leg chains.
Speaking on the first day of the summit, Dr. Michael Crowley of the Omega Research Foundation, pointed out how “inherently abusive law enforcement equipment is manufactured or promoted by approximately 500 companies from 58 countries.” Omega also monitors over 130 international trade fairs where equipment that is used in torture is promoted and sold. Shockingly few countries have regulations governing who can trade in these instruments, devices and equipment. But as Scott Roehm, CVT Washington director, put it, “States have a responsibility to prevent torture. And that means they should regulate the manufacture and trade of the tools of torture.”
Because of my role at CVT, I get to travel to our various offices and have spoken to refugees and asylum seekers in Georgia, Minnesota and on the U.S. Southern border who have found sanctuary in the United States after surviving torture in their home countries. I have met Syrian survivors at our offices in Jordan. I have also met African survivors at our programs in Ethiopia and Kenya who have come to CVT as part of their journey of rehabilitation, healing and hope. These are people whom state forces tried to disappear into the darkness and to break. Many were tortured with instruments and devices that are legally sold on the global market. They are the reason that we need a Torture-Free Trade Treaty.
A Torture-Free Trade Treaty can establish controls aimed at stopping transfers of materials to states who consistently misuse them in order to inflict torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”
The summit was an opportunity for us to forge a new movement dedicated to regulating this iniquitous commerce in human misery. We are joined in this task by an “Alliance for Torture-Free Trade,” a group of 63 states at the United Nations. The group is currently led by the European Union, Argentina and Mongolia. They have committed to negotiating a UN General Assembly resolution as a first step towards a legally binding Torture-Free Trade Treaty. But we need to hold them to their word.
When an active and engaged civil society movement collaborates with States, the result can be a combustible energy for change. It is this organized energy that helped impose international sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa and turn it into a diplomatic pariah, hastening its demise. It is the same energy that helped us achieve an international ban on landmines, established the Arms Trade Treaty and was responsible for the International Convention against Torture. Shoreditch was the beginning of a new process to harness that collective political energy once again.
A Torture-Free Trade Treaty can establish controls aimed at stopping transfers of materials to states who consistently misuse them in order to inflict torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. It can also impose an international ban on goods that have no use other than torture. The current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, sent a message to summit participants encouraging them to forge ahead: “We must end torture in this century, and your campaign can get us closer to that goal.” CVT will be doing all it can to hasten the day.