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Tools of torture: South Africa's trade in electric shock equipment
27 June 2016

In South Africa, various types of electric shock devices are authorised for use by law enforcement officials. These include stun belts, stun shields, stun batons, stun guns and projectile electric shock weapons. However, across the world, the use of such devices by law enforcement officials has been associated with serious abuses, which result in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, injury, and even death.

These devices are often perceived as less-lethal alternatives to firearms. But there is a gap in South African legislation regarding the control of these and other types of law enforcement equipment that can facilitate torture and ill treatment.

Stun devices deliver an electric shock and are designed to achieve compliance through pain
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The use of certain electric shock equipment has been internationally condemned. The European Commission has banned both the import and export of body-worn electric shock equipment (commonly referred to as stun belts, stun cuffs or stun sleeves), and subjects other types of electric shock equipment to trade restrictions. Stun devices that deliver an electric shock through direct contact with the human body are designed to achieve compliance through pain.

Body-worn electric shock devices are often used when prisoners are transported, in courtroom settings or to control prisoner work groups. Other types of direct contact electric shock devices – such as stun shields, stun batons and stun guns – require close proximity to the individual. They deliver a painful shock on contact.

Another category of stun weapons delivers a powerful electric shock on impact by means of projectile darts. An example is Taser International’s so-called Smart Weapon; a pistol-shaped device that causes almost immediate neuromuscular incapacitation.

Unlawful beatings and the assault of convicted prisoners and detainees awaiting trial by prison guards and police officials are commonly reported in the South African press. These include instances where electric shock devices are misused. A number of legal cases have been launched against local officials in relation to the abuse of electric shock devices and other forms of ill treatment.

Why does SA not prohibit law-enforcement equipment that could facilitate torture?
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At least one South African company manufactures electric shock devices for law enforcement and has supplied South Africa’s Department of Correctional Services with stun belts and stun shields. Many other South African companies advertise and sell electric shock equipment.

South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Instituted in 1996, the constitutional Bill of Rights enshrines the rights of all people living in the country to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources; not to be tortured in any way; and not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way. It is surprising, then, that South Africa does not prohibit law-enforcement equipment that can be abused or facilitate torture and ill treatment; or at least have rigorous oversight mechanisms to control the manufacture, use and trade of such equipment.

A prohibition on law enforcement equipment that has no practical purpose other than for torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is clearly called for. The local manufacture of such devices and their export from South Africa should also be prohibited. Safer and more humane forms of restraint and control should instead be used, such as non-electrified shields or batons in the case of electric shock devices.

Safer and more humane forms of restraint and control should be used
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Other types of law-enforcement equipment that may have a legitimate law-enforcement function but which are prone to misuse, such as projectile electric shock weapons, should also be prohibited, or regulated and controlled, to prevent human-rights violations. The manufacture of any such devices in South Africa and their export should not be allowed – or should at least be highly controlled in the same way that other sensitive items such as firearms, and material relating to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery are regulated.

South Africa has ratified the 1987 United Nations Convention against Torture, and has passed its own legislation aimed at combating and preventing torture. It is therefore duty-bound under its constitutional and international obligations to respect human rights. Prohibiting or exercising restraint in the transfer and trade of policing and security equipment that facilitates torture or other forms of ill treatment should be prohibited, or controlled as appropriate. Body-worn electric shock devices should be prohibited for import and export. These do not meet a legitimate law-enforcement objective that could not be effectively achieved with safer, less abusive alternatives.

A control mechanism similar to the current system overseen by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee – which exercises political control over the import and export of conventional weapons – should be instituted to regulate the trade in the various types of electric shock devices. In this way, South Africa’s trade policies would conform to internationally accepted practices, and prevent the transfer of items that could contribute to the violation or suppression of human rights.

Omega Research Foundation and Noel Stott, Senior Research Fellow, Transnational Threats and International Crime division, ISS Pretoria

Picture: ©Robin Ballantyne/Omega Research Foundation

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