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UN Special Rapporteur Calls on American Psychological Association to Withdraw Psychologists from Guantanamo

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During last week's American Psychological Association convention in Toronto, the APA's President James Bray received a letter from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak. The letter declared that, in Dr. Nowak's professional opinion, the Guantanamo detention facility is still in violation of international law. It therefore asked the APA to follow its own policy, as expressed in a member-passed referendum last September, and request removal of psychologists from Guantanamo. It further asked the APA to remove its infamous standard 1.02, which built the Nuremberg "just following orders" Defense into the APA's ethics code.

Here is a Press Release issued Saturday by the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, of which I'm a member. The Press Release is followed by Nowak's letter:

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Calls on American Psychological Association to Withdraw Psychologists from Guanta'namo Detention Camp
Coalition for an Ethical Psychology demands APA comply with international law, medical ethics and its own policy prohibiting participation in human rights violations


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Stephen Soldz

Steven Reisner

August 8, 2009, Toronto -- In a letter to the American Psychological Association, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, warns that psychologists' continued presence at Guanta'namo Bay and similar detention settings violates international law, medical ethics, and APA's own policy on psychologists and human rights. Dr. Nowak's letter, issued during the association's annual convention in Toronto, calls for both the removal of psychologists from those settings and for changes in the APA ethics code, which currently allows psychologists to follow military orders even if these conflict with medical ethics or human rights.

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In 2008 the APA membership overwhelmingly approved a referendum prohibiting psychologists from working at sites that violate international law, specifically referencing the standards of the United Nations. In the wake of the letter from the UN Rapporteur, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology echoed Dr. Nowak's call for APA leadership to immediately implement the member-ratified policy.

"Given the crisis arising from Nowak's findings, the APA leadership must act immediately to implement the members' wishes as expressed in the referendum and call for the removal of psychologists from Guanta'namo and other settings which remain outside of international law. Otherwise the APA and the profession of psychology risk further damage," stated Stephen Soldz, co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and President-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

In his letter, Nowak states clearly that, by UN standards, "the overall conditions of detention at Guantanamo Bay continue to be outside of international law." He goes on to state, "it is incumbent upon the APA to ensure that its standards comport with international law as well as the UN Principles of Medical Ethics [which] require an absolute ethical prohibition of psychologists' presence or involvement in these operations." As an accredited non-governmental organization at the United Nations, the APA is mandated to uphold United Nations standards; otherwise that status may be jeopardized.

Nowak's letter comes in response to APA's continued failure to prohibit psychologists' participation in detainee interrogations and conditions, even after recently released Justice Department memos, Senate and Defense Department reports have confirmed that psychologists played crucial roles in helping to design, implement, and provide training for the Bush administration program of detainee abuse and torture.

"Even today, long after the end of the Bush administration, detainees continue to be held in abusive conditions and psychologists continue to lend their expertise to legitimize these abuses," said Steven Reisner, advisor on Psychological Ethics for Physicians for Human Rights and a co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. "It is time to investigate and hold to account both the psychologists who devised and implemented the Bush administration programs of abuse and torture, and the APA for continued support of these psychologists, even after their essential role in the torture program was exposed."

The Coalition further calls upon the APA to inform psychologists serving at Guantanamo and Bagram Air Base that they are serving in violation of APA policy.

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As Nowak stated in his letter:

"Every day that you delay the referendum is another day where psychologists are, by their presence and participation in these operations, acquiescing in human rights violations. Following the APA's own policy, on the other hand, would send a message that the health professionals maintain the highest ethical standards, refuse to participate in such violations, and do their part, with the support of their professional leadership, to bring these abuses and violations to an end."


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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)

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