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Reflections on a Historic APA Convention and the Road Ahead

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APA Town Hall Meeting in Toronto
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"When cast into the depths, to survive we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for things that can." -- theologian Forrest Church

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Last week's convention of the American Psychological Association in Toronto witnessed an unprecedented victory for advocates who have long called for the APA to prioritize our profession's do-no-harm ethics in national security settings. At the same time, thousands of attendees have now returned home still uncertain as to whether the Association's leadership will persevere in pursuing a course of transparency, accountability and reform -- after a decade of collusion and cover-up.

Reason for Optimism

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But let's begin with the exciting news. Last Friday the APA's governing Council of Representatives overwhelmingly approved -- by a vote of 157 to 1 -- a Resolution that bans psychologists from involvement in national security interrogations. Furthermore, the Resolution adopts the UN Convention Against Torture and the judgments of UN representatives and other international bodies in determining what constitutes torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The same Resolution also affirms, based on the 2008 membership referendum, that psychologists present at Guantanamo Bay and similar international sites are in violation of APA policy unless they are working directly on behalf of the detainees or providing treatment to military personnel. This is a momentous step forward after years of obstruction from the highest levels of the APA.

The Resolution now requires the APA to notify U.S. government officials -- including "the President, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, CIA Director, and Congress" -- of the new policy and to request that psychologists be removed from any roles or sites, including Guantanamo, that would place them in violation of the policy. It is noteworthy here that the Resolution includes restrictions that apply to psychologists at detention sites where interrogations are conducted according to Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the current standard for government interrogators. That appendix permits the use of coercive techniques such as long-term isolation and sleep deprivation.

Although not required by the Resolution, it will be equally important for APA's leadership to quickly, clearly, and publicly communicate the new policy to the licensing boards and psychological associations of all 50 states, in order to facilitate more effective oversight and enforcement of the profession's ethics. As is well documented, the blanket failure of the APA and state boards to take disciplinary action against ethical misconduct in national security settings is among the profound disgraces of the past decade.

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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 a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of (more...)

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