Friday, September 7, 2007

NYT on Lancet Letter: "Doctors Decry Guantanamo Treatment"

In a letter in this week's British medical journal The Lancet, some 260 signatories, mostly doctors, described their outrage at the American Medical Association for turning a blind eye to U.S. detainee abuse, and in some cases, participating in it.

The letter is headlined "Biko to Guantanamo: 30 years of medical involvement in torture" [link requires free registration]. The Lancet correspondence caught the attention, too, of the New York Times, which printed the AP story on it.

LONDON (AP) -- The U.S. medical establishment appears to have turned a blind eye to the abuse of military medicine at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, doctors from around the world said in a letter published Friday in a prestigious British medical journal.

Health care workers in the U.S. military seem to have put their loyalty to the state above their duty to care for patients -- and American regulatory bodies have done nothing to remedy the situation....

The letter compared the ongoing role of U.S. doctors working at Guantanamo, who have been accused of ignoring torture, to the South African doctors involved in the case of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died while being detained by security police....

The American Medical Association did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment left at their press office Thursday evening.

Looks like the AMA is giving the New York Times the same brush off it gave journalist Luke Mitchell of Harper's a couple of months ago when he enquired about doctor participation in torture and abuse at CIA sites. As I noted then, the AMA sought to shift the blame for collaboration with torture over to the American Psychological Association, which has not requited itself well of late on this issue, as described multiply elsewhere (here and here, for instance).

But it seems the doctors do not have clean hands themselves, despite a formal position of not participating in American detainee abuse. A huge controversy has arisen, for instance, over doctor involvement in force feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers. From The Lancet letter:

There are strong parallels between the Biko case and the ongoing role of US military doctors in Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror. Last year, we suggested that the physicians in Guantanamo force-feeding hunger strikers should be referred to their professional bodies for breaching internationally accepted ethical guidelines. One of us (DJN) lodged formal complaints with the medical boards for Georgia and California as well as pointing out to the American Medical Association (AMA) that the former hospital commander at Guantanamo, John Edmondson, was a member. After 18 months, there had been no reply from the AMA, the Californian authorities stated that they “do not have the jurisdiction to investigate incidents that occurred on a federal facility/military base”, and the authorities in Georgia stated that the “complaint was thoroughly investigated” but “the Board concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to support prosecution”. Yet an analysis of the same affidavit by the Royal College of Physicians concluded that “in England, this would be a criminal act”....

The attitude of the US medical establishment appears to be one of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

There has been a lot of suggestions on listservs and in discussions in general among medical and psychological professionals about what to do to rein in the profession and stop professionals from participating in torture. Paper resolutions seem to be worth even less than the paper they're written on. And now it appears that appeals to state medical or licensing boards have no effect. Even in England, where the RCP concludes such collaboration is a criminal act

The UK government has refused a request from the British Medical Association for a group of independent doctors to assess the detainees...

When it comes to affecting the current situation vis-a-vis doctors and psychologists assisting U.S. torture abroad, a sense of impotence and despair is permeating the health professions. In the end, the solution will not be found by appealing to narrow guild interests, whether in the associations that represent the professions or to the conservative state agencies that regulate them. The fight against torture must be part of a larger political struggle to bring down the Bush regime, and install a political order that is not dedicated to imperial conquest and nationalist supremacy, whether pushed by Republicans or Democrats.

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