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A Sad Day for Psychologists, a Sadder Day for Human Rights

By Linda M. Woolf, Ph.D.  Posted by Stephen Soldz (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink

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Less than two weeks ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives passed the 2007 Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as “Enemy Combatants.” At that same time, the Council of Representatives voted not to support a statement limiting psychologist involvement in interrogations of prisoners defined as “enemy combatants.”(a)

At first glance, the 2007 Resolution appears to be a strong document and repudiation of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners currently detained at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA interrogation sites, and other sites housing individuals detained as part of the “global war on terror.” However, I believe it is a flawed document. I am also deeply disappointed by the vote of the APA Council to keep psychologists working, not for the primary welfare of prisoners but largely for the benefit of the state, in contexts defined as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” under both the 2006 APA Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the 2007 Resolution.

I should note that I was not an uninvolved participant in these discussions. I was one of the co-drafters of the 2006 APA Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. I was also initially involved in work on modifications to the 2007 Resolution (full disclosure of my involvement is provided below). I also have deep respect and warm collegial relationships, indeed friendships, with many who worked diligently on the revisions to the Substitute Motion that became the 2007 Resolution. Therefore, it is with great reticence and personal conflict that I share my thoughts.

The 2007 Resolution - General Concerns

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Col. Larry James, a psychologist at Guantanamo Bay speaking before the APA Council of Representatives, stated not once but twice, “If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die.” This statement is frightening in its implication. It essentially argues that psychologists are the primary protectors of prisoners–they stand between life and death, between these sites being defined as prison camps or even concentration camps as opposed to death camps. I find this chilling.

Rhea Farberman, APA Public Affairs, stated in Newsweek (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20364983/site/newsweek/page/0/), “We want to have an influence on the issue of torture, and that’s why we’re staying engaged. Others have divorced themselves from the process altogether–like the American Medical Association, which has said it won’t allow its members to be involved in interrogations in any way. But we think we can have more of an effect if we stay at the table” and “We feel we can play a positive role in maintaining detainee welfare.” Unfortunately, history has shown, and I think physicians have learned, that professionals’ continued involvement in destructive settings may simply serve as tacit approval of atrocities being committed at such settings. A profession becomes permanently stained by such involvement and, the long-term well-being of prisoners is rarely protected.

I recognize that there are individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay and other sites who may wish great harm upon the United States and elsewhere. Nonetheless, I recognize that how we treat our “enemies” says more about who we are as people and a culture than it does about them. This is particularly true when detainees are in positions of relative helplessness and are of little threat to us within the context of their current confinement. Unfortunately, evidence from Abu Ghraib, the CIA sites, and Guantanamo Bay suggests that we have moved down a path to becoming the mirror image of the enemy we so purportedly despise.

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I also recognize that some of these detainees, particularly those captured in Afghanistan, most likely did nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, without access to due process as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 5th, 8th, and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution (cited in both the 2006 and 2007 APA Resolutions), these individuals may never leave Guantanamo Bay and similar sites. Moreover, if released, they will always carry the scars of their abusive detention and perhaps pass these scars on to their children. Unfortunately, those of us associated with the American Psychological Association, due to a policy of collaboration, will have collaborated in great harm.

I also recognize that the United States interrogation and incarceration sites maintained as part of the “global war on terror” are uniformly condemned by a range of human rights NGOs, the International Red Cross, and the United Nations Human (UN) Rights Council (2006). In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council called for the immediate closure of the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and called for an immediate cessation of “all special interrogation techniques authorized by the Department of Defense” (p. 25). Yet, despite APA’s status as a UN NGO, we, as an organization, have turned our back on the fundamental principles of human rights as outlined by numerous UN declarations, conventions, and related documents.

Are there psychologists working hard to protect the welfare of prisoners in interrogation settings? I am sure that there are and I respect their efforts. Regardless, significant problems remain. First, situational pressures can overwhelm even the best among us. Second, psychologists are being asked to serve as protection for prisoners, a role generally assumed by legal counsel. The right to legal counsel is a fundamental component of due process and attorneys are best trained to protect our rights and interests in situations of detention. Finally, regardless of the positive motives of psychologists involved in working with the CIA or at sites such as Guantanamo Bay, they are at best treading water. They do not have the power to reform a broad, destructive context.

The 2007 Resolution - Relation to the 2006 Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The 2007 Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as “Enemy Combatants” is aptly named. It is quite simply a reaffirmation and application of the 2006 APA Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. There is very little that is new in the 2007 Resolution but it is a clear explication of the concepts as applied to interrogation settings.

The 2006 Resolution:

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1. Unequivocally condemned torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

2. Prohibited psychologist involvement, either directly or indirectly, in behaviors that involved torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and called upon psychologists to report violations.

3. Stated that the prohibition and condemnation applied to all persons, settings, and contexts.

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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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