Monday, November 26, 2007

Tasers and torture

Even as some in the United States, including its Attorney General, ponder whether practices like waterboarding are "torture," the 10-member U.N. committee that monitors compliance with the Convention Against Torture attached that label to a different practice: It declared Friday that use of the stun-gun weapons known as the Taser "causes acute pain, constituting a form of torture."
Earlier in the week, in Maryland, the NAACP had called for a moratorium on use of the weapons. And in the last month and a half 8 persons, in Poland, Canada, and the United States, have died after police used Tasers on them. The manufacturer, which offers cybersurfers a "virtual tour" of the TaserX26 (above), maintains that the deaths were caused by pre-existing medical problems, and not by "the low-energy electrical discharge of the Taser" of its product; to this, CBS News retorted: "That's 50,000 volts."
The recent fatalities did not directly give rise to the declaration that Taser use constitutes torture; rather, that occurred in Concluding Observations of the Committee Against Torture after reviewing the 4th periodic report of Portugal, which has bought the weapons for its police forces. According to a U.N. release, when an expert "reiterated concern" about this, the state party responded as follows:

Portugal strictly observed the principles of proportionality and reasonableness in the police use of firearms, and existing rules on coercive measures would continue to apply. Twenty taser weapons had been bought and they would only be issued to very specific units dealing with the most serious crimes where there was danger to human life. Prison security services were still evaluating the specific controls that would apply to the use of these weapons. All use of firearms was governed by strict procedures. There had been recent evaluations by the Inspectorate General of Internal Administration and the police were strongly discouraged from using firearms in car chases.

Portugal seems to be following a global trend: in addition to the countries named above, the same weapon already is used by "some 3,000 police officers and gendarmes in France," and expansion of its use to thousands more is contemplated.
Portugal's assurances apparently did not impress Committee experts, however. Page 4 of its Concluding Observations, by my translation from the French, the only version yet available on the web, states:

Utilization of "TaserX26" weapons
14. The Committee is greatly concerned about the State party's recent acquisition of "TaserX26" electric weapons, to be distributed to the Lisbon Metropolitan Command, the Intervention Corps, the Special Operations Group, and the Personal Security Corps. The Committee is worried that the use of these weapons provokes an acute pain, constituting a form of torture, and that in certain cases, it could even cause death, as has been revealed in reliable studies and by recent, actual events.

The Committee then expressly invoked 2 articles of the Convention Against Torture, concluding ¶ 14 in boldface, as follows:

The State party ought to consider renouncing the use of "TaserX26" electric weapons, the consequences of which to the physical and mental state of targeted persons could be of a nature that violates Articles 1 and 16 of the Convention.

The reaction of Portugal -- not to mention other states parties to the Convention -- to this exhortation to abandonment of the weapon remains to be seen.

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