26/06/2015 07:21 BST | Updated 25/06/2016 06:59 BST

The Trade in Instruments of Torture Must Be Stopped


Photo credit: openDemocracy

This Saturday I will be speaking at 'Giving a Voice', an event to mark the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture organised by Newcastle Amnesty International and Freedom From Torture North East Supporters Group. Speaking alongside members of both campaign groups and Chi Onwurah MP, I will present the view from Brussels and what the European Parliament is doing to tackle this heinous human rights violation.

I have long been an advocate for human rights, in the Parliament and beyond. But as European Union (EU) legislation on the trade of the instruments of torture is debated among MEPs, I have a new and unique opportunity - as member of the trade committee - to influence legally binding change.

'No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment'.

Article Four of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union outlines in unequivocal terms the EU's absolute rejection of the torture or ill-treatment of human beings.

Made legally binding in December 2009, the Charter forms the conceptual basis for our fundamental human rights, which in turn determine how the Union shapes its laws and responds to new global and domestic challenges. It reinforces at an EU level what is enshrined in key United Nations' human rights conventions and applies to all the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the EU, as well as to its Member States.

The methods used to commit torture and ill-treatment of a human being are vast and constantly evolving, however at its core torture is defined as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person. It is carried out for reasons including the extraction of information, punishment, intimidation and coercion.

Those who inflict, instigate or acquiesce in such acts are liable to prosecution by international courts at the highest level and face severe and indeterminate prison sentences. However the torture, ill-treatment and execution of human beings continue to be committed in countries across the globe.

In an attempt to create a comprehensive legislative framework to combat such acts, the European Commission has sought on several occasions to shut down the networks that trade in the instruments of torture: the thumb screws, spiked batons, leg irons and neck shackles that cannot be reasonably considered to have any other purpose than to inflict pain. At present, the EU is the only region in the world to have implemented specific laws to halt this trade.

However EU legislation does not go far enough: though items that are unquestionably designed to torture and commit capital punishment are banned from being traded in and out of the EU, those that could be misused for torture - including medicinal products and lethal injections - are dealt with in a separate, annexed list (Annex III) and made subject to a weaker and more easily manipulated control procedure.

Moreover, legal loopholes enable companies to advertise torture equipment to known human rights abusers outside the EU. The UK is well known to have repeatedly held international arms fairs where illegal wares have been promoted and no company has as yet been prosecuted for doing so. Finally, the law does not prevent EU companies from brokering in instruments of torture, provided that they do not physically cross the border into the region.

Following the loud cries of politicians, campaign groups and individuals alike, it looks like our voices are finally starting to be heard. In January 2014 the Commission proposed a revisiting of existing legislation, which would include export controls on medicines and lethal injections, a crack-down on technical assistance and a prohibition of brokering services related to all goods associated with torture. Crucially, the revision would also update the current definition of torture in order to bring it into line with recent rulings at the European Court of Human Rights.

If the Commission's revision is accepted, we will be well on our way to halting this deadly trade once and for all. The European Parliamentary Labour Party and our Socialist and Democrat colleagues support the new proposals, and further call for a "catch all clause" to be introduced into the legislation. This would prohibit the export of all goods that are reasonably proven to be destined for torture and would furthermore enable the EU to place a ban on all new products as soon as they are flagged - a crucial point in a rapidly and constantly evolving market.

If the EU is to be serious about its opposition to torture and the ill-treatment of human beings it must put its full might behind effective, comprehensive and adaptable controls on the instruments of torture. We believe that the legislation currently under debate in the Parliament can do this: we just need the political will to see it through.

Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England