ResourcesPress Release

PHR Applauds UN Call to End Psychological Torture; New Army Field Manual Must Prohibit Psychological Torture

For Immediate Release

The UN Committee Against Torture today firmly rejected the Bush administration's distinction between physical and psychological torture, a finding strongly supported by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). The administration's unprecedented and unfounded interpretation of psychological torture has provided immunity for those who engage in techniques like hooding, mock execution, long-term isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual and religious humiliation, and threats of death.

"The Bush administration should respond by explicitly prohibiting all forms of torture in the new Army Field Manual, including techniques of psychological torture" said PHR Executive Director Leonard Rubenstein. "The administration's deliberate and distorted misinterpretation of our anti-torture law has opened the door to widespread and systematic psychological abuse of detainees in US custody throughout the world and has degraded the discipline, traditions, and honor of our armed services in the process."

The Committee's condemnation of psychological torture comes at a historic moment for US-based psychiatrists. Government documents and reports have shown that military psychiatrists and other mental health professionals were asked to contribute directly to the infliction of psychological abuse in interrogations, particularly as members of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs). At its annual meeting in Toronto next week, the American Psychiatric Association's Assembly will be asked to approve a policy advanced by the APA board prohibiting psychiatrists from participating directly in interrogations. "The decision to be made by the APA Assembly," Rubenstein said, "will have enormous impact on the ethical integrity of the psychiatric profession, and can serve as a striking denunciation of psychological torture and abuse in general. PHR urges the Assembly to adopt the prohibition of psychiatrists' participation in interrogation."

PHR also calls on the Department of Defense to end its use of health professionals to design, approve, consult on or monitor interrogation, as members of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) or in any other capacity, and to ensure that new guidelines on health personnel involvement in interrogations are fully consistent with internationally accepted standards.

The Committee explicitly rejected the Bush administration's interpretation that acts of psychological torture that are prohibited include only those that cause "prolonged mental harm." Rather, the Committee confirmed, the prohibition of psychological torture under the Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994, covers "a wider category of acts, which cause severe mental suffering, irrespective of their prolongation or its duration."

These techniques of psychological abuse have long been classified as torture by the US State Department; however, the Bush Administration reinterpreted the law on psychological torture to require proof of prolonged suffering, rather than defining psychological torture according to the tactics used.

The Committee also called on the US government to rescind any form of psychological torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including sexual humiliation, "water boarding", "short shackling" and using dogs to induce fear, and to "investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators" of mental or physical torture. PHR documented the use of these and similar techniques, as well as their harmful health consequences, in the 2005 report, Break Them Down.

The long record of attempts of self-injury of detainees at Guantanamo, which has included four recent suicide attempts, may well be the result of the kinds of interrogation techniques, as well as overall conditions, to which detainees have been subject. PHR reiterated its call for an independent medical review of the conditions under which detainees are confined and their impact on the health of detainees.

PHR also strongly endorsed the other findings of the United Nations Committee Against Torture's review on US compliance with the Convention Against Torture, including the calls to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, end the practice of extraordinary rendition, release the location of secret US prisons, and allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all detainees.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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