In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, the prevalence of worldwide torture has taken on an added dimension. In an effort to enlist new allies in the fight against terrorism, the United States is forming bonds with nations in which torture and other forms of human rights violations are widespread. Uzbekistan, in central Asia, is a case in point. Agents of its National Security Service are known to hang political detainees and criminal suspects by their wrists, beating them with batons and subjecting them to other forms of physical and psychological abuse, including electroshock. In the last two years alone, 15 people have died while in custody there. According to Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek governmentciting the threat posed by Islamic extremistshas taken advantage of the terrorism issue for several years as an excuse to repress its political dissidents, including peaceful Muslims. It is estimated that 7,000 Muslims are in prison, most of them for alleged anti-state activity. Allying ourselves with governments of this kind runs the risk of tacitly condoning serious human rights violations that too often include torture.
With electroshock a favored form of tortureit leaves no marks that could later be used as evidence against perpetratorsAmericans should find it unconscionable that scores of U.S. companies are involved in the manufacture, marketing and export of tools of torture. It was here, in fact, that electro-gun technology was initially developed in the 1970’s, and we continue to dominate the global market. One sign of hope in this regard appeared late this past summer, when the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Export Administration Act of 2001 (H.R. 2581) aimed at limiting the export of equipment that can be used for torture. The amendment bans not only electroshock stun belts and shock batons, but also serrated handcuffs and thumbscrews, to countries in which torture is known to occur.
Torture is almost certainly used more extensively than human rights groups can document. Many survivors fear reprisal if they speak, and others die as a result of their mistreatment before their stories can come to light. In the majority of nations surveyed, torture took place at the hands of state agents or police officers. Victims include not just dissidents and political prisoners, but people suspected of minor criminal offenses. Women and children too are subjected to torture.
Women, especially those in custody, are at special risk of rapenow considered both a form of torture and a crime against humanity. In some countries, like Turkey, complaints of rape by police are rarely investigated, and few officers have ever been convicted. Fear of reprisal, moreover, along with the social stigma that accompanies rape in many cultures, often deters women from filing complaints. Armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and parts of Africa have included rape on a mass scale as part of a deliberate strategy to terrorize communities and force civilians to leave their homes.
The greatest barrier to stopping torture, Amnesty notes in its report, is impunitya country’s unstated belief that it can get away with it. Evidence can be concealed, and investigationseven when begunare often ineffective; they are sometimes carried out by the very groups whose members were ultimately responsible. Even when prohibitions against torture exist in a country’s laws, the term may be so narrowly defined as to render ineffective efforts to prosecute except in the most blatant situations. Perpetrators, moreover, may escape prosecution by claiming that they were only following orders. Overcoming impunity is thus a major goal of human rights organizations committed to fighting against the practice of torture. We will be helping to move toward that goal if we refuse to countenance the use of torture in partner countries with shaky human rights records that are now part of the growing coalition against terrorism.
Congress should also move forward with the proposed ban on exporting electroshock and other torture-related devices. There is no legitimate use for them. Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director of Amnesty USA, has rightly said it is high time Congress addressed what he has called the horrific U.S. export of torture equipment. The exporting of such equipment, which the Department of Commerce euphemistically calls crime control items, has no place in a democratic government.