Saturday, July 11, 2009

Comment: No defense to torture

In a recent letter to its 150,000 members, the American Psychological Association (APA) took its strongest stand ever against psychologist involvement in torture or other illegal forms of interrogation.

“Torture in any form, at any time, in any place, and for any reason, is unethical for psychologists and wholly inconsistent with membership in the American Psychological Association,” the association wrote. “The APA Ethics Committee will not accept any defense to torture in its adjudication of ethics complaints.”

This unequivocal stance was not achieved easily. It took years of divisive private and public debate, which culminated in a September, 2008 vote by the entire membership on a resolution forbidding psychologists from working 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.”

Responding to that nearly 60 percent vote in support of the resolution, the APA leadership, which for years had argued that psychologists could play valuable roles in interrogations in support of national security and even as protectors of detainees, has made a decisive about-face.

“Let’s set the record straight,” wrote APA president James H. Bray in April of this year. “It is a clear violation of professional ethics for a psychologist to have played a role in the torture of CIA detainees, as described in the recently released Bush administration memos.”

Among other revelations about the Bush-era torture practices and how the Bush administration tried to justify them, those memos, made public by the Obama administration, documented what anti-torture advocates had said for years, that some psychologists were implicated in torture.

American psychologists contributed substantially—and ethically--to the US military’s SERE (for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program. SERE, which started in the 1950s following the Korean War and expanded during the Vietnam War, tried to prepare potential captives to cope with the kinds of abuse and torture that US military personnel had been subjected to during those conflicts.

However, under the Bush administration, SERE was “reversed engineered” to devise “softening up” and “enhanced interrogation” techniques that were inflicted on US-designated “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, and CIA-operated “black sites” in Afghanistan and several Eastern European countries.

A number of media reports have documented that psychologists advocated or were involved in adapting and transferring SERE techniques to Guantanamo and other US-controlled sites.

In other words, the US turned the torture techniques that had been used against their soldiers—decried at the time as brainwashing—on its own captives, and psychologists were involved.

In New Scientist of September 29, 2007, I argued that psychologists ought to find involvement in such activities particularly abhorrent. Psychologists define themselves as practitioners of a healing profession, and decades of their own research has shown how easily ordinary people can be influenced to hurt others and be corrupted by involvement in abuse seemingly sanctioned by authorities.

APA President Bray now strongly condemns such misuse of psychological expertise. “These techniques, when applied in this manner, are tantamount to torture as defined by APA and international law,” he writes. “APA stands ready to adjudicate reports that any APA member has engaged in prohibited techniques.”

Even the argument that military psychologists were simply obeying orders will not stand. “There is one ethical response to an order to torture,” Bray writes. “Disobey the order” (emphasis his).

The APA deserves praise for the exceptionally clear stance it has now taken. With an estimated 500,000 torture victims in the US alone, APA members now have the chance, if not the obligation, to try to ease the lifelong emotional pain carried by torture victims.

And, hopefully, never again will psychologists help create more victims.

President Obama likewise deserves credit for his reversal of many of the Bush-era practices and attempts to legitimize torture, announced on Obama’s second day in office.

However, the battle against torture is by no means over.

As has been widely reported, ex-Vice President Cheney continues to advocate torture—or rather, “enhanced interrogation" by the US as both necessary and useful.

New Scientist recently reported that 104 out of 150 nations studied by Amnesty International continue to practice torture. There are millions of torture victims worldwide.

It is likely that the US continueS to outsource torture—that is play an active role in abusive interrogations carried out in countries with fewer scruples about torture such as Bangladesh or Pakistan.

Despite calls for accountability from many sources, most recently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the US is not showing any significant willingness to investigate, much less prosecute officials who instigated, developed, justified and utilized torture.

If government-sponsored torture is ever to be stopped, not only psychologists and practitioners of other healing professions, but everyone who agrees that torture is indefensible, needs to press for an end to thIS abhorrent practice and accountability for those who ordered and carried it out.

Robert Adler

for the institute