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The APA and Guantanamo: Actions, Not Words

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No-Torture-No-Collaboration by Roy Eidelson

by Roy Eidelson and Dan Aalbers

Two years ago the American Psychological Association adopted its comprehensive "Policy Related to Psychologists' Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment." The stated rationale for this consolidation of previous ethics policies was that it would eliminate confusion and uncertainty. In turn, this heightened clarity would presumably facilitate greater adherence to APA policies and more effective enforcement of ethical violations.

To many, this seemed to be a sound and promising development. But on the ethics front, APA leaders have an abysmal track record when it comes to meaningful action that runs counter to the Pentagon's own policies on detention and interrogation operations. Time and again in these situations, the APA has trumpeted its commitment to psychology's do-no-harm ethics but then retreated into the shadows when those principled words required principled actions. A close look at the APA's current stance toward the detention center at Guantanamo Bay sadly demonstrates that little has changed.

The first statement of the APA's comprehensive policy document is drawn from a portion of the 2008 membership-initiated Petition Resolution:

Psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.

The comprehensive policy also states:

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APA shall make information available on its website from the UN and its committees and other recognized authorities relevant to the identification of unlawful detention settings to the APA membership at large and other relevant parties.

These statements are noteworthy because on multiple occasions UN representatives -- speaking in their official capacity -- have publicly and directly asserted that the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay is in violation of international law. As one example, in April 2013 -- just a few months before the APA's comprehensive policy was approved -- the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement that included the following about Guantanamo:

The continuing indefinite incarceration of many of the detainees amounts to arbitrary detention and is in clear breach of international law.

We must be clear about this: the United States is in clear breach not just of its own commitments but also of international laws and standards that it is obliged to uphold. When other countries breach these standards, the US -- quite rightly -- strongly criticizes them for it.

Those who have been cleared for release must be released. This is the most flagrant breach of individual rights, contravening the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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More recently, in November 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture met in Geneva, Switzerland and reiterated:

The Committee expresses its deep concern about the fact that the State party continues to hold a number of individuals without charge at Guantanamo Bay detention facilities. Notwithstanding the State party's position that these individuals have been captured and detained as 'enemy belligerents' and that under the law of war is permitted 'to hold them until the end of the hostilities', the Committee reiterates that indefinite detention constitutes per se a violation of the Convention.

Based on the APA's 2013 comprehensive policy, it is clear that these statements from UN representatives should be available on the APA website. Yet a thorough search of the website indicates that they are not there.

It is equally clear that psychologists continue to work at Guantanamo. The Joint Task Force Guantanamo website currently describes the presence and responsibilities of psychologists who serve as Behavioral Science Consultants:

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Roy Eidelson is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is president of Eidelson Consulting, a past president of Psychologists for (more...)

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