A Norm in the Making: Banning the Global Trade in Tools of Torture

By Ezgi Yildiz
Postdoctoral Researcher, Global Governance Centre
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies


A highlight of the recently concluded 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly was the first Ministerial Meeting of the Global Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, held on 24 September 2018.

The Global Alliance was launched in September last year, under the leadership of Argentina, the EU, and Mongolia. What brought this diverse group of countries together was the noble cause of banning the trade in goods used for torture and capital punishment. Their first Ministerial Meeting was held a year after they proclaimed their determination to end international trade in instruments of torture and capital punishment.

During this meeting, which was opened by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Alliance welcomed its new members. Then, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström gave an account of the progress made since the formation of the Alliance. The meeting also expressed the commitment of now more than 60 member states to introduce a draft resolution before the UN General Assembly with a view to adopt a legally binding instrument.

“It is puzzling that while torture is strongly prohibited, there are no regulations regarding the tools of torture…”

I had the rare privilege to participate in this meeting alongside Kumi Naidoo from Amnesty International, Michael Crowley from Omega Research Foundation, and Thórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, chairperson of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. As I articulated during our panel, for a scholar of human rights, this Alliance is good news. It is puzzling that while torture is strongly prohibited, there are no regulations regarding the tools of torture and capital punishment at the international level.

Why does this matter? In the end, if a person wants to commit torture, will banning the tools stop him/her?  After all, one can use water drops as instruments of torture. Will banning the tools ban the intention?  This is similar to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument. To some extent, this is true. Banning the tools will not completely eliminate the intention to commit torture. But by banning these tools, we will no longer enable the torturers. Also, indirectly, it might create an environment in which such intentions could wither as a result.

Cecilia Malmström (center) during a ministerial meeting of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade. © European Union, 2018 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service


It’s still too early to be able to measure the impact of the Alliance for Torture-Free Trade, since it was created just a year ago. We may, however, understand its potential by drawing from previous examples of other trade-related treaties. Past experiences suggest that this Alliance can create a positive impact by: setting international standards, establishing new practices and routines, and cultivating an environment in which states can learn from each other.

First, standards are useful because they tell us all what is not acceptable. They erase ambiguity. They help ensure that we do not normalize what is widely understood to be morally wrong. This is the first step to change behaviour. What this Alliance stands for sends a strong message: It is not okay to trade in products that exist solely for torture and capital punishment. This is already an important milestone in the fight against this shady trade.

Second, establishing new practices and routines is another mechanism for change. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is an interesting example in this regard. A 2018 Small Arms Survey study found that some countries started to write and share their reports on their arms trade only after having ratified the ATT. This meant that this treaty cultivated practices and routines that improved the culture of transparency and accountability. This is precisely the intention of the Alliance’s global network of Focal Points for sharing information and best practices, which was created during the first technical meetings of experts last June in Brussels. Their work will be crucial for not only establishing common standards but also for devising policy templates that can be adapted to different domestic settings.

Third, academic studies have found time and again that countries learn from each other, especially when they are part of the same social setting. This is not only because they share best practices, but they also re-shape their values collectively. Studies have found, for example, that once states became a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, their policies started to be more protection-oriented. Similarly, research shows that companies that joined the Kimberley Process changed their view about what their responsibilities are and how to fulfil them. This Alliance can generate a similar impact by underlining the urgency of banning tools of torture and capital punishment, and help member states prioritize it at the national level.

This is all to say that this Alliance is off to a promising start. It focuses on three key features: setting standards, establishing practices, and shaping values/identities through social learning. It promotes a ban with concrete and achievable standards. It aspires to change practices and routines by sharing information, expertise, and technical assistance. Finally, it creates a community of like-minded states that are dedicated to the same goal. Congratulations are in order for their hard work and determination.

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