By Nora Sveaass – A clinical psychologist, member of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Chair of the HHRI Board
The “Hoffman report” published on July 10th this year was a shocking but a very important document. The report was a result of a thorough investigation looking into the many allegations that had been raised with respect to psychologists’ participation in so-called enhanced interrogation in the context of national security in the USA. For many years, terror suspects have been kept deprived of liberty in so-called black sites or in other places of detention where the detainees were deprived of the basic human rights and legal safeguards. Moreover, the concern has been to what extent psychologists have taken part in interrogation and developed ways of interrogating, applying psychological knowledge in an unlawful and unethical way, and why information about psychologists’ involvement was not actively looked into, stopped and sanctioned.
The American Psychological Association (APA) initiated the report, but the work was done in an independent way and published based on an analysis of very large material that had been revised. The report concludes very clearly that there has been a close collaboration between the US Department of Defence (DoD), CIA and the American Psychological Association during the Bush administration. APA has actively taken part in interrogations, including by finding ways of pressuring suspects for the sake of information and national security.
The report refers to a “tailoring” of the APA principles of ethics to conform with the needs of the US DoD. It also refers to a number of ways in which the APA covered these decisions as well as the many attempts at “sugar coating” this with resolutions and documents to still the strong critics and to avoid insight into the actual engagement and abuse.
Health workers’ participation in torture and other forms of serious abuses is unfortunately not something new. Psychologists and doctors tacitly accepted the sterilization laws that were adopted in Germany in 1933, resulting in 350-400 000 persons being sterilized. In addition, there were few protests against the Nürenberg laws of 1935 strictly regulating marriage, so that «German blood» would not be mixed with the blood of other «races». But the most serious was of course the Euthanasia programme implemented between 1940 – 1941 where around 70 000 adult psychiatric patients and ca. 5 000 intellectually disabled children were killed. The really scaring point is that this was put through practically without protests. But, at the Nürenberg trials in 1947, 15 out of 23 doctors who were charged were found guilty and seven were sentenced to death.
Abuse of psychiatry as a tool for persecution of persons in opposition has had a long story in the former Soviet Union, and many dissidents were silenced after wrongly having been diagnosed as mentally ill. In 1971 Vladimir Bukovsky provided a comprehensive report about this abuse to a number of psychiatrists in Europa and USA and disclosed the arguments used when forcedly hospitalizing political dissidents. In 1972 it became known that a Russian psychiatrist, dr Gluzman had been imprisoned for 10 years because he had actively documented the abuse of psychiatry. This situation was discussed at the meeting in World Psychiatric Association (WPA) in Honolulu in 1977, where this was actively condemned and an international committee was established in order to investigate this situation.
Under the military dictatorships in Latin America between 1970 and 1990 it was a well-known fact that health workers participated on the side of the oppressors and that doctors assisted in falsifying death and birth certificates so that death by torture could be masked and children born in captivity could be illegally adopted to families close to the dictators. In addition, there are allegations also that health workers participated in designing and carrying out torture. But on the other hand, nobody was so active and strong in the documenting, protesting and bringing into light what was going on. Their active condemnation of abuse as well as strong voices against impunity and for accountability for those responsible, was heard globally and their strong position on this may well have contributed to international justice for crimes against humanity. Today there are trials ongoing in Argentina, Peru and Colombia. In particular in Argentina, the responsible are sentenced to life prisons. Those affected by the violence have likewise been able to tell and to hear, and many have received reparation, despite the difficulties also surrounding this measure.
During the last years, there has been a growing engagement among health professionals concerning human rights and the principles of ethics. A number of attempts have been made to establish the principles of human rights as a basis for professional ethics. This must be seen as important steps to counteract that professionals, whose main objective is to work for health, well-being, and respect for physical and mental integrity of persons, engage in violations, destruction and abuse. The European Federation of Psychological Associations voted in July in favour of including human rights principles in the so-called meta-code of ethics, for the professional organizations ethical codes.
So, back to the Hoffman report. Many raised the question whether the report would be published in full and unedited or what would happen to it. We know that that it was published immediately at completion, and all the important and very concerning details are in the report. The allegations as to psychologists engagement had been many, over a long time, and well founded. But all attempts at doing something with this problem were met with negative comments, even scorn.
There is no doubt today that the US administration under Bush in fact violated human rights and now, it is also documented that the APA formed part of this. Torture became part of interrogation of terror-suspects after 9/11 and many were kept in places where no rights were respected. The report by the US Senate from 2014, documented this, and now the recent report has described psychologists’ role in these violations. The greenlighting by Donald Rumsfeld to «water-boarding», create fear by playing on phobias, and stressed-positions, as well as the redefining of torture in the so-called «torture memos» signalled a policy in clear violation of the international absolute prohibition of torture, and the non-derogable right not to be tortured. Furthermore, the argument that a «lex specialis» would justify impermissible acts during interrogation was clearly described as unacceptable by the UN Committee against Torture, in 2006.
Health professionals must be very aware of the rights of persons, must be informed about human rights, what these entail and what they actually mean on the ground. This must include a clear ethical position where no order from any superior justifies torture or ill-treatment. Also where reporting on violations observed or intended is part of the ethics, and were whistle-blowing is something that must happen when colleagues or others are in violations with the human rights. The unacceptable participation and contribution of the APA in interrogation must teach us a very important lesson. Our US colleagues, who for long have spoken about this publically, but to a lot of deaf ears, may be our best advisors as to what should be done to prevent this from happening again.
All professionals have a responsibility to engage in order both to avoid harm from being done, and to strengthen respect and fulfilment of the internationally agreed upon and adopted human rights. Both those relating to economic, social and cultural rights and those relating to civil and political rights. It is also important with national and international collaboration between health professionals to ensure that rights are respected and enjoyed. This must be given stronger priority by the organizations, associations and networks to which we are affiliated. The civil society voice that health professionals is part of, plays an important role in the global struggle against violence and injustice, and in promoting human rights and dignity.