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.
But across the world, the use of such devices has been associated with serious abuses, which result in torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, injury and even death. Yet these devices are often perceived as less lethal alternatives to firearms.
There is a gap in South African legislation regarding their control.
The use of certain electric shock equipment has been internationally condemned. The European Commission has banned the import and export of body-worn electric shock equipment (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 body are designed to achieve compliance through pain. Body-worn electric shock devices are often used when prisoners are transported, in courtrooms 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. Other stun weapons deliver a powerful electric shock by means of projectile darts. An example is Taser International’s so-called smart weapon, a pistolshaped device that causes almost immediate neuromuscular incapacitation.
Assaults on convicted prisoners and awaitingtrial detainees by prison guards and police officials are commonly reported in the South African press. These include instances when electric shock devices are misused, and have prompted a number of legal cases.
At least one South African company manufactures electric shock devices for law enforcement and has supplied the correctional services department with stun belts and stun shields. Many other local companies advertise and sell electric shock equipment.
South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, which enshrines the rights of all people living in the country to be free from all forms of violence and torture, and not to be treated in a cruel or degrading way.
It is surprising, then, that South Africa does not prohibit law enforcement equipment that facilitates torture and ill treatment – or at least have rigorous oversight mechanisms to control its manufacture, use and trade.
A prohibition on law enforcement equipment that has no practical purpose other than for torture and punishment is clearly called for. The local manufacture and export of such devices should also be prohibited.
Safer and more humane forms of restraint and control should instead be used, such as nonelectrified shields or batons.
Other types of law enforcement equipment that are prone to misuse, such as projectile electric shock weapons, should also be prohibited, or regulated and controlled.
These devices 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 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 dutybound under its constitutional and international obligations to respect human rights. – issafrica.org
The Omega Research Foundation is an independent British-based research body. Noel Stott is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria