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Justifying torture in difficult circumstances

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(Image by John Graham / johngraham.alphalink.com.au)

When not only does a nation’s government condone torture, but even its nation’s psychologists look the other away, where does that leave us, asks Lyn Bender.

WHEN OUR GOVERNMENT CONDONES TORTURE, where does that leave hard won human rights?

Tony Abbott has said of well documented reports of killings torture and human rights violations by the Sri Lankan Rajapaksa regime:

“Sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen.”

While other members of the Commonwealth boycotted the CHOGM held in Sri Lanka in November 2013, or raised concerns about these abuses, Tony Abbott praised the Sri Lankan regime and gifted it two naval patrol boats.

But Tony Abbott is not the only one to look away.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has decided not to proceed with formal charges of unprofessional conduct in the case of a psychologist who was present and a participant during the torture of a 9/11 terrorist suspect at Guantanamo Bay Prison. The wording in the letter (dated December 2013) of non-pursuance of charges refers to the prevalence of strong feelings about the interrogation methods used and continues on as though it is seeking to balance these ‘strong feelings’.

Admittedly, these were highly charged times.

Fear unleashed measures that in the freedom loving United States could have seemed paradoxical. The nation that traditionally feared the encroachment of government health care was now subject to massive civil rights infringements under the newly signed U.S. Patriot Act. This provided, amongst other sweeping powers, indefinite imprisonment without charges being laid and without a trial.

It was signed into law on 26 October, 2001 — just 45 days after what became known as 9/11.

Of course, Australia has also enacted sixty anti-terror laws since 2001. There have been many calls for their repeal.

They allow for severe infringements of civil rights and for innocent citizens to be deemed ‘guilty’ by association. Citizens may be held secretly for questioning for 24 hours, but even this can be repeated, like the renewal of a library book.

Perhaps, in the spirit of the war on terror, the APA seems to have decided to look the other way in the case of the complaint against the Guantanamo prison psychologist.

It is not, however, only about this one case — although it is a significant example.

The APA appears to be buying out of any ‘judgement’ of what may be happening inside the prison walls. To the point of not even, it seems, taking responsibility to caution members about such employment and its potential moral hazards. Just obeying orders appears as if it may apply as a defence here, despite it having been long discredited at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

The Guardian reported the following regarding the evidence against psychologist John Leso:

…. the APA did not deny Leso took part in the brutal interrogation of the suspected 20th 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani, whose treatment the Pentagon official overseeing his military commission ultimately called “torture”.

Leso was identified as “MAJ L” in a leaked log, published by Time magazine in 2005, of Qahtani’s marathon interrogation in November 2002. With Leso recorded as present for at least some of the session, Qahtani was forcibly hydrated through intravenous drips and prevented from using the bathroom until he urinated on himself, subjected to loud music, and repeatedly kept awake while being “told he can go to sleep when he tells the truth”. 

At one point, Qahtani was instructed to bark like a dog.

“Dog tricks continued and detainee stated he should be treated like a man,” the log records. “Detainee was told he would have to learn who to defend and who to attack.”

During an interrogation on 27 November 2002, the log records a direct intervention by Leso: “Control puts detainee in swivel chair at MAJ L’s suggestion to keep him awake and stop him from fixing his eyes on one spot in booth.

The APA now, after protests from psychologists, has far stricter prohibitions against participation in torture.

It now states the following on its web site:

Any direct or indirect participation in any act of torture or other forms of cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment by psychologists is strictly prohibited. There are no exceptions.’

I may be old fashioned but I have assumed that all health professionals, including psychologists, must abide by a basic code of ethics underpinned by the premise:

‘First do no harm.’

In 2007, at a general meeting, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) passed a resolution to unequivocally condemn participation in torture by members.

Specifically, the APS position declares:

Psychologists shall not countenance, condone or participate in the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures, in any situation, including armed conflict and civil strife or facilitate the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or to diminish the ability of the victim to resist such treatment. Psychologists shall not be present during any procedure in which torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is used or threatened. Psychologists must have complete professional independence in deciding upon the care of a person for whom they are responsible. 

All this leads to my burning question: where is the voice of my professional body as more evidence emerges about the treatment of asylum seekers who arrive or seek to arrive in Australia by boat?

Some may argue that torture of the so-called boat people is not proven according to UN Convention Against Torture (and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment).

But this definition includes torture as punishment or used in discrimination. The treatment of refugees in Australia has been cruel and degrading even without the recent allegations of burns to refugees’ hands. (These claims, which include allegations of beatings and of refugees being forced to hold onto hot engine pipes, are currently being investigated by Indonesian Police.)

The response by Australia has been unimpressive.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed the allegations out of hand, asking rhetorically — who do you believe, the Australian Navy or a bunch of people attempting to break the law?

Case closed.

But there is already much that is being done to refugees in the name of Operation Sovereign Borders that could be identified as torture.

For instance, pushing small boats carrying frightened refugees back into open waters, including women and children sounds cruel and inhumane to me. Shooting ‘over their heads’ is especially terrifying for those who have fled from war. Call me naïve but isn’t this also dangerous? Returning refugees without proper assessment to places of danger and persecution? Isn’t this torture? Like Guantanamo detention, just being there is torture. So say the children indefinitely detained on Manus Island. Is it cruel to imprison refugees including unaccompanied minors indefinitely in offshore locations without proper medical care? Housing families in tents when temperatures may reach 50 degrees Celsius — isn’t that torture?

All these actions contravene the Geneva Convention on Refugees to which we are signatories as well, by the way — but there’s more.

Supplying naval patrol boats to a regime that is known to have committed acts of torture killings and imprisonments so that they can patrol waters to stop refugees from fleeing — isn’t that being complicit in abuse and torture? Incidentally, the ALP is just as guilty of turning a blind eye to these human rights abuses in Sri Lanka; the policy is bipartisan.

I am disappointed that my professional body, the APS, seems to have remained deaf and dumb to the implications for psychologists of being in any way complicit with this policy of deterrence and punishment.

Are psychologists still employed in detention centres — onshore and offshore? What advice are they being given about their participation in this policy of punishment and deterrence?

When I was employed as a psychologist at the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in 2002, I was left alone and isolated by my own profession. The psychologists I worked with were compliant with the prison administration that were implementing the Howard Government policy.

The brief conveyed to me was:

‘… not to make things too comfortable for the detainees.’

They had, after all, no right to come to Australia — so the argument went.

One young psychologist informed me that he had used cognitive behavioural techniques to persuade an Iranian man to return to his home country. This man believed he would be killed if he returned, but was facing the prospect of never seeing his family again. He was confronted with the option of indefinite detention and no rights of family reunion.

The rookie new graduate had ‘encouraged’ the desperate detainee to return. Even if he died he would see his family — maybe.

I can’t convey the horror I felt at this disclosure. I still wonder what action I should have tried. But I felt the system was so riddled with corruption that the whole thing had to be denounced.

I felt ethically bound to speak out very publically about the suffering of the refugees and the corruption of the system.

I was a pretty lonely voice.

My support came from psychiatrists and the medical profession.

In December 2013, a group of 13 medical doctors wrote an open letter revealing the shockingly inadequate medical standards available to refugees on Christmas Island. But these voices have barely been heard.

Now we are on a so called war footing and Navy personnel have been declared exempt from liability or prosecution and stripped of work safety protections. Where does that leave ethics?

When I worked at the APS as a professional advisor to the public and members, I received many calls from members, who were being relentlessly investigated by the then legal body — the State Registration Board.

The smallest misdemeanours, including failure to keep adequate notes, or offering more sessions than a funding body was willing to provide (often because the therapist deemed these to be clinically necessary) attracted censure. All allegations were investigated with rigour. Psychologists were often suspended over long periods on unproven charges.

I am not diminishing the importance of professional boundaries, but it seems zeal and bureaucracy have trumped morality.

In Australia, the APS is not the enforcer and has no power to prosecute. It does, however, have the power of influence and agenda setting. It could speak.

Some would argue that ethics is a utilitarian  thing — governed by the greatest good for the greatest number and by consequences rather than actions.

Professor Peter Singer, OAM, is one of the most famous preference utilitarian ethicists, but I doubt that the current Government has his frameworks in mind when formulating their justification of current policies.

The Abbott Government’s ‒ and indeed the former Gillard/Rudd Governments’ ‒  professed argument may be seen as crudely utilitarian.

It goes as follows:

In order to stop evil people smugglers, and in order to stop boats and therefore stop drowning occurring, this entire imbroglio of cruelty to refugees is justified.

The latest claim is that it is also promoting the benefit of all Australians by protecting our sovereign borders.

(Image by @wynrichards)

This justification does not hold water.

Our general wellbeing is not threatened by honouring our international obligations, however our moral wellbeing is greatly at risk if we condone the infliction of suffering and fail to stand up for the rights of all. If our professional institutions and our own Prime Minister disregard moral justice, how will the population at large behave?

The rationale, of course, is merely  a thinly disguised ploy to gain political advantage.

It was used relentlessly at election time and has now become the albatross and curse of our Navy and the Abbott Government. It seems that Tony Abbott has become obsessed with stopping those damn boats by hook or by crook. He is promoting this as though it is the salvation for us all.

To that end, while Davos was devoting the Friday 24 January to the economic impacts of climate change ‒ Climate Day ‒ Tony Abbott (who doesn’t really believe in climate change) was reporting in transit making a quick visit to Sri Lanka.

Yes, that’s right, in transit from Davos to Sri Lanka.

It’s not a big stretch to imagine the agenda was “stopping the boats” or returning refugees to Sri Lanka.

As Jeff Sparrow observed, because Abbott seeks co-operation from the Rajapaksa regime on people smuggling, he is willing to give battleships to their

‘… blood soaked military’.

This Government needs to be held to account by us all, but especially by those entrusted with the responsibility to speak out against injustice and abuse. And more especially by those whose job it is to take care of and try to heal the psychologically wounded.

As has often been said:

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

The originals of John Graham's art, featured in this piece as well as elsewhere on IA, are available for purchase by contacting the editor at editor@independentaustralia.net.

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