The APA, Torture, and Human Rights

A restraint chair used during force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees at the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

The leadership of the American Psychological Association (APA) has announced a ban on psychologists working with the military or intelligence agencies of the United States. With 120,000 members, the APA is the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the United States. The ban follows an exposé of the APA’s cozy relationship with the national intelligence community since 9/11. After years of essentially being co-opted by the counterterrorism effort, the APA is now saying: No more; psychologists must be “more focused on human rights.” Primarily the ban prohibits participation in interrogations related to national security.

The scandal from which the APA hopes to distance itself revolved around the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques (which critics called torture). These practices were designed and implemented with the direct involvement of the psychology profession. According to critics, by cooperating with counterterrorism efforts (by the CIA and Department of Defense intelligence agencies) APA officials compromised the organization’s ethics guidelines. As a result, psychologists participated in the torture of “enemy combatants” in detention, in violation of the Geneva Accords. In the process, the government was given “cover” and could claim that its interrogation tactics were safe, legal, and effective. These measures included sleep deprivation, simulated drowning (so-called waterboarding), and other means of inducing fear in detainees.

It should be noted that the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association both banned their membership from such participation in 2006. The scandal came to light largely because of efforts by psychologists themselves, as well as through testimony before a U.S. Senate panel.

Image credit: © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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