Tag Archive 'afghanistan'

Photo: Monica Barnabé

A new report, “Truth Seeking and the Role of Forensic Science” presents the results of a three-day conference in Kabul, Afghanistan in October, 2010 where over 100 participants represented victims and civil society members, as well as governmental authorities from nine provinces in the country.

The impact of more than three decades of violence has rendered almost every Afghan a victim. Meaningful attempts to deal with the injustices of the past have been few and far between, due to the ongoing hostilities, precarious security situation, weakened status of many governmental institutions, and the fact that many of the perpetrators of violence and mass atrocities remain in positions of power. Under these circumstances, the International Forensic Program (IFP) has collaborated with civil society organizations in Afghanistan to undertake a program called “Securing Afghanistan’s Past.”

In this context, the program aims to initiate a dialogue between victims of conflict and Afghan authorities as a first step towards discussing necessary policy and legal frameworks to protect and preserve evidence of past abuses, and begin a process of truth seeking. The multi-year program began with a training course in the forensic documentation of mass graves in May and June 2010 and includes two conferences, the first of which was mentioned above.

The report recounts the details of the three-day conference, titled “Truth Seeking and the Role of Forensic Science” and presents a series of recommendations issued by conference working groups examining different aspects of how to deal with the crimes of the past.  According to Stefan Schmitt, Director of the IFP, “This conference is based on the principle that the endless and ongoing cycle of violence can only be broken by starting with a discussion about how we can begin to acknowledge the truth.  It is a conference about hope, the hope of a better future for our children. Those in Afghanistan, as well as those around the world.”  International experts and national actors, such as one of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court Judges, contributed to the discussion with topics like comparative approaches to transitional justice and the current state of forensic science in Afghanistan, as well as what measures must be taken to improve it. Participants of the conference were unanimous in expressing that for any meaningful peace to take hold in Afghanistan, justice for crimes of the past would have to be addressed.  Additionally, international actors in Afghanistan were asked to more actively support the Afghan people’s call for justice.

Forensic analysis, through its scientific objectivity and transparency, can provide an accurate and verifiable record of past mass crimes and make it difficult for official actors, perpetrators, and other responsible parties to ignore, deny, or distort the evidence. Therefore, PHR’s International Forensic Program uses scientific methods to document these violations against human life and dignity to provide a foundation upon which the wrongs of the past can be discussed in an impartial manner. The IFP has been engaged in Afghanistan since 1997 and continues to remain active in the country with its current program.

Before a country can move beyond its own past, its leaders and society must reckon with the previous dark chapters of its history. Despite the ongoing violence and hostilities in Afghanistan, the time to begin documenting past atrocities and truth seeking is now.

We call on the President of the United States to establish an independent, non-partisan commission to examine and report publicly on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in the period since September 11, 2001. The commission, comparable in stature to the 9/11 Commission, should look into the facts and circumstances of such abuses, report on lessons learned and recommend measures that would prevent any future abuses. We believe that the commission is necessary to reaffirm America’s commitment to the Constitution, international treaty obligations and human rights. The report issued by the commission will strengthen US national security and help to re-establish America’s standing in the world.

(Statement from the co-sponsors of www.commissiononaccountability.org)

PHR has once again joined with leading human rights organizations and has renewed its call to establish a commission investigate the torture and abuse of detainees. The quotation, above, is our joint statement.

In light of overwhelming evidence that the Bush Administration’s legacy of torture originated with health professionals, who were deeply involved in facilitating and implementing the torture regime, the only way to look forward as a nation committed to our founding principles embodied in the Constitution is to demand accountability.


The newly declassified Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) report (PDF 15MB) is one of several documents released recently supporting the undeniable legal and ethical obligation to fully investigate and prosecute torture and to sanction violations of medical and psychological ethics:

  • The International Committee of the Red Cross report (PDF)provides shocking examples depicting health professionals participating in torture.
  • The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos show that manipulation of law to conform to desired policy outcomes were directly informed by the advice of health professionals.
  • The SASC report provides further evidence that the Bush Administration, in developing its torture program, turned first to health professionals and relied on advice from psychologists that supported a policy of exploitation. The Bush Administration ignored the clear warnings that employing “aggressive techniques” would be illegal and ineffective. The report shows that long before the (OLC) memos were produced to provide a “golden shield” for torture, there were red flags cautioning that using adapted SERE techniques might be illegal and warning that information elicited from SERE techniques might be unreliable and inaccurate. A SERE trainer acknowledged: “[w]e have no actual experience in real world prisoner handling.”

Health professionals complicit in designing and implementing torture abandoned their ethical duties to aid the national security apparatus and broke the law. The SASC report confirms that the process of designing an abusive interrogation program began in December 2001 and that torture was authorized at the highest levels of the Administration. The report clarifies how Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 memo authorizing interrogation techniques that constitute torture, spread from Guantanamo to Iraq and Afghanistan. That memo was based on the advice of psychologists and military behavioral scientists.

To date, no comprehensive investigation has examined the role of health professionals in designing, aiding or failing to report abusive interrogation techniques. Physicians for Human Rights supports the recommendation made by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Chair of SASC, to Attorney General Holder: look at the evidence and pursue accountability; “we must acknowledge and confront the abuse of detainees in our custody.”

The American Psychological Association has never comprehensively addressed the troubling ethical entanglement of some members of its leadership in the intelligence apparatus. In January 2005, the American Psychological Association issued its Report of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, which seeks to legitimize the involvement of psychologists in interrogation?—?a role that is fundamentally inconsistent with ethical principles and both US and international law. In concluding that psychologists have a central role in interrogations, the Task Force gave short shrift to the ethical and human rights implications of coercive interrogation practices used by US forces that relied on psychological expertise. Nor has the APA sanctioned its members responsible for designing and implementing torture. PHR, with colleagues from the University of Cape Town, has documented the conflicts encountered when health professionals are under pressure to use their skills to serve state interests at the expense of human rights. The findings  were published in the report Dual Loyalty and Human Rights in Health Professional Practice: Proposed Guidelines and Institutional Mechanisms.

The United States and the military in particular, has been a leader in defining and establishing the applicable legal norms for individual criminal responsibility for war crimes, including the elimination of defense of superior orders and liability for heads of state. It is undeniable that crimes have been committed; as a nation, we must not turn our backs and walk away.

Unless the President and Congress act to create an accountability mechanism to address the authorization for and implementation of detainee abuse, the US will remain in violation of its clear legal obligation to investigate and prosecute torture. These techniques, which undermined our national security and may put American troops at risk, must not go unpunished. The integrity of medical and psychological ethics must be restored through a full airing of the facts and health professionals complicit in torture must lose their professional licenses.

Last night, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) released a report, developed over two years, detailing the origins and implementation of the Bush Administration’s torture program (PDF, 15 MB). The SASC report is the latest and most comprehensive account of the Bush Administration’s regime of torture and the central role health professionals played. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Chair of SASC, is calling for the Department of Justice to review the report and pursue any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, a move that PHR supports.

Steven Reisner, PhD, Advisor on Psychological Ethics at PHR, responded, saying:

Long before Justice Department lawyers were tasked to justify torture, US psychologists were busy actually perpetrating it. These individuals must not only face prosecution for breaking the law, they must lose their licenses for shaming their profession’s ethics.

Writing about the contents of the report released by SASC, which he chairs, Senator Levin said:

In my judgment, the report represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration’s interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse – such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan – to low ranking soldiers. Claims, such as that made by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that detainee abuses could be chalked up to the unauthorized acts of a “few bad apples,” were simply false.

The truth is that, early on, it was senior civilian leaders who set the tone. On September 16, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that the United States turn to the “dark side” in our response to 9/11. Not long after that, after White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales called parts of the Geneva Conventions “quaint,” President Bush determined that provisions of the Geneva Conventions did not apply to certain detainees. Other senior officials followed the President and Vice President’s lead, authorizing policies that included harsh and abusive interrogation techniques.

The record established by the Committee’s investigation shows that senior officials sought out information on, were aware of training in, and authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques. Those senior officials bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses. As the Committee report concluded, authorizations of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials resulted in abuse and conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.

The SASC report confirms what PHR has been documenting since, Break Them Down, our first report on US torture in 2005, and subsequently in Leave No Marks (2007) and Broken Laws, Broken Lives (2008): psychologists have justified, designed and implemented torture for the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense. Senator Levin explained:

The Committee’s investigation uncovered new details about the influence of SERE techniques on military interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). According to newly released testimony from a military behavioral scientist who worked with interrogators at GTMO, “By early October [2002] there was increasing pressure to get ‘tougher’ with detainee interrogations” at GTMO. (p. 50). As a result, on October 2, 2002, two weeks after attending interrogation training led by SERE instructors from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), the DoD agency that oversees SERE training, the behavioral scientist and a colleague drafted a memo proposing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques at GTMO. The behavioral scientist said he was told by GTMO’s intelligence chief that the interrogation memo needed to contain coercive techniques or it “wasn’t going to go very far.” (p. 50). Declassified excerpts from that memo indicate that it included stress positions, food deprivation, forced grooming, hooding, removal of clothing, exposure to cold weather or water, and scenarios designed to convince a detainee that “he might experience a painful or fatal outcome.” On October 11, 2002, Major General Michael Dunlavey, the Commander of JTF-170 at GTMO requested authority to use aggressive techniques. MG Dunlavey’s request was based on the memo produced by the behavioral scientists.

MG Dunlavey’s request eventually made its way to Department of Defense (DoD) General Counsel Jim Haynes’ desk. Notwithstanding serious legal concerns raised by the military service lawyers, Haynes recommended that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approve 15 of the interrogation techniques requested by GTMO. On December 2, 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld approved Haynes’ recommendation, authorizing such techniques as stress positions, removal of clothing, use of phobias (such as fear of dogs), and deprivation of light and auditory stimuli.

The Committee’s investigation revealed that, following Secretary Rumsfeld’s authorization, senior staff at GTMO drafted a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the use of SERE techniques, including stress positions, forcibly stripping detainees, slapping, and “walling” them. That SOP stated that “The premise behind this is that the interrogation tactics used at U.S. military SERE schools are appropriate for use in real-world interrogations.” Weeks later, in January 2003, trainers from the Navy SERE school travelled to GTMO and provided training to interrogators on the use of SERE techniques on detainees. (pp. 98-104).

Nathaniel Raymond, Director of PHR’s Campaign Against Torture, said:

The Senate Armed Services Committee confirms what we have long known—health professionals were the agents that spread the virus of torture. Now is the time for those who violated our laws and our values to be held to account.

PHR is renewing its call to Congress and the White House to immediately create a non-partisan commission to investigate the Bush Administration’s use of torture, with a specific focus on the role that psychologists and medical professionals played in its design, justification, supervision, and use.

John Bradshaw, JD, PHR’s Washington Director, said:

A non-partisan commission is required if the American people are to know the truth about our nation’s descent into torture. Congress must move quickly and show the world that we are serious about restoring our reputation as a nation that defends human rights and the rule of law.

Please join us in calling for a non-partisan investigation of the Bush Administration’s torture program and the role that psychologists and medical professionals played in it. If you’ve already signed the petition, ask 6 of your friends to sign, too.

(Cross-posted on Health Rights Advocate)