Recent events highlight the importance of the torture-weapons trade and the role that private companies in some countries, notably the United States and Britain, have in it. Their role was stressed in a recent Amnesty International document, “Stopping the Torture Trade,” which calls for a stop to the production and trade of torture weapons.

The report was released at the same time as the U.S. State Department report on human rights around the world, accusations against Chilean Gen. Hernan Gabrielli concerning participation in torture of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime, and an Argentine judge’s decision to overturn amnesty laws dictated by the military. These laws protected hundreds of soldiers and military officers who were accused of torture, murder and kidnapping during Argentina’s last military rule, from 1976 to 1983, thus potentially opening the way for a wave of trials. If officers who participated in torture are found guilty, this will mark a new human-rights era in Argentina and have international repercussions.

According to AI, U.S. companies, as well as companies from Britain, France, and Russia, sell weapons and other equipment used for torture. Among them are high-tech electroshock weapons, leg irons and serrated thumb cuffs designed to tear flesh if a detainee tries to escape. AI believes that some of these items — such as the thumb cuffs and electric-shock weapons — are “inherently cruel” and should be banned outright.

The U.S. is the largest supplier of electroshock devices. According to AI investigations, 86 U.S. companies have manufactured, marketed or sold electroshock devices during the 1990s. William F. 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.”

In many countries including Argentina — my own — electroshock has been routinely used against political prisoners. Those devices have also been used against children, pregnant women, the elderly and the mentally ill.

The AI report also indicates that the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia are among the main providers of training to military, police and security forces of foreign states. Because they are the main users of torture technique and equipment, stopping torture means stopping the trade and the training that helps create “professional torturers.”

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Defense released information that proved that the School of the Americas, located in Fort Benning, Georgia, had used intelligence “training manuals ” between 1982 and 1991 that advocated execution, torture, beatings and blackmail. The manuals were used to train thousands of Latin-American security-force agents.

Copies of those manuals were distributed in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru. Hundreds of graduates from that school have been implicated in human-rights violations throughout Latin America.

Even though it is illegal to own some of the equipment in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Commerce has granted export licenses for these kinds of weapons as “control crime equipment.” Sales amount to $97 million since 1997. Data also show that Saudi Arabia, Russia, Taiwan, Israel and Egypt are among the major recipients of U.S. equipment. Schulz remarked, “It is unconscionable that while the U.S. State Department promotes human rights, the U.S. Department of Commerce has approved export licenses to countries that our own government documents as committing torture.”

Perhaps all countries should follow the example of President Vicente Fox, who recently assumed power in Mexico, and 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 forever eradicate torture.”

Mariclaire Acosta, 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 the Amnesty Report 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.”

Coming on the heels of the State Department report 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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