Monday, September 17, 2007

Australian Psychologists Protest U.S. Torture -- Sign Their Petition!

Spurned in their attempt to get the Australian Psychological Society (APS) to cancel ex-American Psychological Association (APA) President Gerald Koocher as keynote speaker at the 42nd Annual APS Conference, held in Brisbane this year, psychologists at the University of Queensland are circulating a petition that asks APS to

establish an APS policy on torture and its members' involvement in any activity that could be classified as supporting torture in line with the United Nations policy on Human Rights.

Gerald Koocher has a long history supporting the practice of psychologist participation in national security interrogation settings, including such sites as Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and CIA "black sites".

Recently, Dr. Koocher attacked in print another psychologist who spoke about her experience as a member of a blue ribbon APA presidential panel studying APA policy on psychologists and interrogations. This psychologist blew the whistle on a process that was overwhelmingly stacked by pro-Department of Defense personnel. Koocher ridiculed her in public as having a "lack of boundaries" and a "troubled upbringing".

Wollongong contra Koocher

In a letter to the Australian publication InPsych, and published earlier this month, a number of lecturers and students at the Psychology Department, University of Queensland, including the clinical director, described the situation (thanks to Stephen Soldz for the link):

In an earlier ABC [Australian Broadcasting Company] program, Lateline, on March 26, [2007] the US bioethicist Stephen Miles made the point that since psychiatrists (and other bodies representing health professionals in the USA) have come out against involvement in ‘interrogations’ like those carried out at Guantanamo, the US Defense Department now approves only of psychologists to participate in the organisation or management of interrogation teams. This is because the APA took the position that it’s OK to participate in such interrogations - something that has put it in opposition to other health professions, even if it recommends it to the US defence establishment.

The APA was at that time under the presidency of Dr Koocher, and he was actively involved in organising the APA’s response to the criticism in the media and by some psychologists that the involvement was contrary to the ‘do no harm’ principle underlying its professional code. Dr Koocher used his APA presidency to defuse criticism of the APA’s soft stance on psychologists’ involvement in interrogations that many rightly see as torture. Dr Koocher is criticised by a number of APA members, and also the wider media, because he refused to condemn the involvement, is seen as having helped the APA to exculpate psychologists involved in torture, and to prevent it from endorsing clear and unequivocal rejection of this involvement.

As an example of the possible shenanigans over at Australian Psychological Society (APS), Arthur Veno, who is a scheduled speaker at the APS conference, and was supposed to also receive an award at same conference, found himself and a colleague left off the printed conference program. An error or dirty tricks? We can't be sure, but Dr. Veno is a noted critic of APA's policy. But to me, it certainly sounds familiar. Meanwhile, Dr. Veno has requested that APS allow circulation of the petition to all APS members.

For those interested, the text of the petitition is as follows. Please sign (I saw about 70 signatories last count, but growing rapidly):

In light of a letter... from our colleagues at the University of Wollongong, Australia, appearing in "Letters to the Editor" of InPsych, dated 10 September 2007 and subsequent investigation regarding the standpoint of past president of the APA, G. P. Koocher - invited as keynote speaker to the Australian Psychologists Society's Conference in Brisbane, this petition is made.

There appears to be neither an APS policy with respect to torture nor APS members' involvement in government sanctioned torture.

Hence, no formal organisational response to the APA is possible, even if the APS wished to do so.

Therefore, we ask other APS Members, and sympathising colleagues internationally, to join with us in petitioning the APS Board to take urgent action to:

establish an APS policy on torture and its members' involvement in any activity that could be classified as supporting torture in line with the United Nations policy on Human Rights and

resolve how the APS should respond to the APA with respect to its policy regarding its members' involvement with torture.

To get to the petition ---

Over on the right hand side of the screen, go to ORF – Online Research Facility. Then use this password: apsconf

Australian Politics: Innocent Naivete or Cynical Bush Alliance?

Amanda Gordon, APS President, has supposedly assured opponents of current APA policy that the Australian society has much less to worry about with its own government vis-a-vis the interrogation issue than their U.S. colleagues. That sounds dubious to me. For instance, The Sydney Morning Herald reported on claims that an Australian official was present during the torture of Mamdouh Habib, an Australian national that the U.S. sent via secret rendition to Egypt to be tortured. He was later released from Guantanamo Bay.

Then there are the amendments to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Act of 1979 (also known as the ASIO Terrorist Act), passed by the John Howard government:

The amendments have given ASIO the power to detain anybody over the age of 16 who may be able to provide information relating to a terrorism offence, regardless of whether they are themselves suspected of being linked with terrorism. Detention can last up to 7 days, with questioning for a maximum of 48 hours.

Critics have objected to the inclusion of children in the legislation, as well as the length of detention and the focus on non-suspects....

Those detained are obligated to answer all questions and produce 'any record or thing' requested by ASIO, or face a penalty of 5 years imprisonment, the only exception being if they do not have the information, where the onus of proof is on the subject of the warrant. This means that those detained under these laws are denied the common law 'right to silence' - that is the right not to produce information which may incriminate them, as well as the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

These facts, and more, point to a state apparatus in Australia that is subservient to U.S. policies, and more than likely not uninterested in what takes place in Australian psychology politics, even in places as far afield as Wollongong.

I've long insisted that the seeming playpen politics of state and national psychology associations are in reality crucial battlefronts in the fight for human rights and civil liberties in this era of the so-called "war on terror". All interested parties should support the APS petitioners in their protest.

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