APA backs out of the torture business

by on September 23rd, 2008

It took several years of grass-roots advocacy and a rare vote by the entire membership, but the American Psychological Association (APA) has finally bowed out of the dark realms where torture is carried out.

Following a long series of revelations about how some American psychologists have wittingly or unwittingly abetted the Bush administration’s program of coercion and abuse of prisoners in the war on terror at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and CIA black sites throughout the world, activists within the APA forced a vote on an unequivocal anti-torture resolution.

The mail-in balloting closed on September 15. Nearly 60 percent of the 15,000 APA members who voted supported the resolution, which will take place no later than the next APA general meeting in August of 2009.

The heart of the resolution forbids APA members from working in settings where “persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g. the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”

By taking this stance, even belatedly, the APA has not only joined other professional associations in the US and the rest of the world in condemning torture and prohibiting their members from being involved with it, but have taken the right side in a long historical struggle to end torture.

IN 1563, the Dutch physician Johann Weyer published his great work, On the illusions of demons and on spells and poisons, in which he argued forcefully against the witch-hunting madness sweeping through Europe, and condemned the use of torture to force suspected witches to confess to satanic acts and to name others.

It’s no coincidence that Weyer, a physician who believed in the Hippocratic admonition, “First, do no harm,” was one of the few voices of humanity and reason in a fear-wracked time not entirely unlike our own.

The APA could have taken this stance earlier, as did the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, and still needs to implement the resolution.

Still, they deserve praise for joining the ranks of true healers throughout history who have refused to be associated with the practice of torture, however strongly advocated by the authorities of the day.

Robert Adler