US Enemy Torture: Bad Policy, Bad Science


Guantanamo Bay

(Image Source: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Darren Hester, rpmaxwell, Will Montague)

This week's issue of Science has an insightful article on a very important topic: US sanctioned torture of enemies, using enhanced interrogation techniques. The article is co-authored by my colleague Dr. Allen Keller, from the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. Dr. Keller and I serve on and participate in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. I will be attending their meeting next week in Washington, DC and will be reporting on our activities.

According to the Science article:

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government authorized "enhanced interrogation" techniques (EITs) (i.e., prolonged sleep, sensory deprivation, forced nudity, and painful body positions) that were routinely applied to detainees in U.S. custody in at least three theaters of operation and an unknown number of secret "black sites" operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They did this despite the fact that each EIT was considered torture by the United Nations (1), and the United States recognized them as such in its reports on human rights practices (2). Although legal sources and trained interrogation experts warned of the unreliability and questionable legality of coerced confessions (3), EITs were authorized by the CIA in January 2003 (4) and the Department of Defense (DoD) in April 2003 (3).

U.S. torture and the complicity of scientists and health professionals were enabled in part by the Department of Justice's (DOJ's) revised definition of torture in the Bybee memo (5), which raised the physical and mental pain thresholds for torture (6). Critically, mental pain or suffering was defined as "significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years" (6). Even if these thresholds were exceeded, infliction of severe physical pain and severe and prolonged mental pain had to be the interrogator's "precise objective" to constitute torture. The Bybee language of "specific intent" (7) undermined any meaningful definition of torture for medical personnel charged with recognizing it.

Their research brings to light some important perspectives on the role of scientists and physicians in supporting human rights. During wartime or peace time, what can we as professionals do to support basic human rights?

Their recommendations include a reminder of medicine's basic tenet: First, Do no harm.

And: {paraphrasing from their article}

*Independence from the security chain of command for all government scientists, particularly those working in national security settings, and for forensic evaluators of alleged abuse in custody.
*Military medical personnel compliance with all civilian medical ethics standards.
*Independent and thorough investigation of the role of health professionals in torture and unethical human experimentation.
*Accountability measures, including punitive sanctions, such as federal and state regulations, should link licensing to compliance with the Nuremberg Code, the Geneva Conventions, the Common Rule (15), and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Peer review and monitoring:

*Monitoring of government health professionals in national security settings by peers from outside of the security chain of command.
*Documentation and reporting of torture and other human rights violations in accordance with international standards (9).
*Appeals and protective mechanisms for third parties who document/report abuses.

Training and education:

*Compulsory training for government scientists and health professionals, particularly those in national security settings, including professional ethics, human rights standards, and medical documentation of torture and ill treatment in accordance with international standards (9).

Governmental accountability:

*Independent investigation of all officials involved in the authorization and implementation of possible torture and unethical human experimentation. This includes investigation of all relevant classified information.
*Punitive sanctions in accordance with the law.

There are no easy solutions here, but perhaps education and public awareness are the most important first step. I look forward to working with these colleagues to bring more clear perspectives and, importantly, to remind scientists and physicians that they can contribute to human rights in many ways.

Note: You can learn more about the roles of scientists and physicians and human rights through the website for Physicians for Human Rights, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, and one of my recent articles in the Human Rights Quarterly {one of many articles by my colleagues on this topic.}

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One of these days you'll be eligible to join the ranks of the civilised nations. And, maybe, then your lousy spellcheckers will acknowledge that civilised is spelt with an s and that spelt is the past participle of spell.

Can you explain your comment? Please add your remarks about the very important topic of EIT. Thank you.