Friday, August 22, 2008

International Torture Rehab Workers Take on APA

Psychologists for Social Responsibility has released a letter from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) to the American Psychological Association (APA). IRCT states the purpose of the letter is to formally encourage all APA members to vote “yes” on a proposed resolution that would ban psychologists from working in settings that violate international human rights law. The ballot for the resolution is in the mail now, and has already been received by many APA members.

The full text of the resolution, which was presented to APA by means of a petition campaign, and not by the APA official leadership, can be found here.

It's a great letter, and a moral boost to see that medical and psychological professionals from around the world, who work most closely with torture victims, have taken a strong stand against the serious ethical and criminal lapses that have grown up in the interstices of consciously ambiguous and legalistic definitions of torture and abuse.

It's also a blow to the political authority of the APA leadership, who consistently maintain that psychologists' jobs would be at stake if psychologists were to withdraw from the U.S. "war on terror" gulag; or that psychologists are needed to prevent abuses at such facilities.

The ICRT letter nicely answers such claims. As their letter points out, the recent development in which a military psychologist involved in interrogations at Guantanamo claimed the right against self-incrimination via the Fifth Amendment at a current military tribunal hearing, also belies APA claims of non-malfeasance.

I believe ICRT wants this communication circulated widely, so if you want to cut and paste, or circulate a link to it, I won't stop you.

Copenhagen, 22 August 2008

American Psychological Association
Attn: President Alan E. Kazdin
750 First St, NE Washington, DC 20002-4242

Dear President Kazdin and APA members,

The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) would like take the opportunity to address APA members on the role of psychologists in preventing torture and share our ideas of how the APA can move forward to ensure that its members practice their profession under the highest ethical standards.

As an umbrella organisation representing 139 torture rehabilitation centres and programmes in 70 countries, the IRCT understands the devastating impact of torture on survivors. Its consequences include not only physical effects such as long-lasting pain, but psychological sequelae – e.g. PTSD, anxiety and depression. The work of the IRCT and its member centres is to alleviate that suffering and work for the prevention of torture worldwide.

The IRCT is acutely aware that health professionals have participated, and continue to participate, in interrogations that violate national and international laws. For example, IRCT physicians played a key role ininvestigating and documenting the torture of 11 ex-detainees held in U.S.custody abroad, the findings of which were published in the Physicians for Human Rights report Broken Laws, Broken Lives. During their clinical interviews with the 11 men, these physicians learned that not only were health professionals present during torture and ill-treatment and failed to report the abuse, they also gave confidential information to interrogators and in some instances even denied medical care for the detainees. And just one week ago, lawyers for Guantanamo detainee Mohammed Jawad charged that a psychologist’s report filed at the detention facility led to the then-teenager being placed in isolation, resulting in a deterioration of his mental health. (i) Such actions flagrantly violate the fundamental ethical precept of the health professions to “do no harm”.

Last year, the APA passed a resolution condemning and prohibiting psychologists’ participation in interrogation that involves torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. While the resolution represented a step forward in preventing torture and ill-treatment, on 4 September 2007 the IRCT issued a statement (ii) expressing concern about the qualifiers in the resolution in respect to the scope of definition of the techniques it mentions.

These concerns still stand. The IRCT thus reiterates that all of the listed techniques are illegal and unethical in all circumstances and not only when “used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm” as stated in the resolution. Moreover, we repeat our concern that the resolution adopts the United States’ reservations to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which weakens the Convention by narrowing its definition of torture with regard to mental pain or suffering.

The IRCT is aware that APA members are currently voting on another resolution that would put a moratorium on members’ participation in military and CIA interrogations altogether. Given the abuses that have taken place in US-run detention centres around the world in later years and the ambiguities that the present US administration has sown with regard to the absolute prohibition against torture and ill-treatment, the IRCT finds such a moratorium appropriate. Therefore we strongly urge APA members to vote “yes” on the proposed resolution.

As several APA members have noted, this resolution is intended to put an end to psychologists’ participation in interrogations that occur in settings that violate international justice and humanitarian standards; it would not prohibit psychologists from working in settings that uphold international and human rights law. The IRCT believes that the APA has the ability to set a precedent for mental health professionals worldwide. The profession of psychology already has suffered ethical damage through its association with the “war on terror” - it will take much time and effort to recover, but the passage of this resolution would be an important step toward healing.


Brita Sydhoff
IRCT Secretary-General

Jose Quiroga
IRCT Vice President and Representative of North America Region
Medical Director and Founder, Program for Torture Victims (Los Angeles)

i. The psychologist in question has invoked Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice so as not to be self-incriminated. For more information see:

ii. See

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