Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Doing Harm

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization, Physicians for Human Rights, has just released a White Paper entitled "Experiments in Torture" that documents medical professionals' complicity with CIA human intelligence collection programs, which include the now-infamous "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs), in post-9/11 detention centers. There is, of course, a continuing (and, at least on one side, entirely bad faith) debate over whether or not EITs are technically equivalent to "torture," but the overwhelming consesus among international jurists, humanitarian and human rights organizations, medical professionals and just about anyone else with a working conscience is that EITs are both morally reprehensible and illegal. Unfortunately, very few gains have been made in the campaign to call the Bush administration to account for its responsibility in the initiation and subsequent justification of EITs, despite noble efforts by people like Senator Patrick Leahy (who called for the establishment of a truth commission to investigate these issues). I've posted several times on this blog about torture, a topic that constitutes a significant part of my current scholarship, and so it won't come as any surprise to readers that I am fully convinced that EITs are the equivalent of torture techniques. I've read some really shocking, heartwrenching, gruesome and, quite frankly, thoroughly disillusioning material in the course of my research on torture, but I have to say that the PHR White Paper is a whole new low.

In sum, the findings of the PHR report are as follows:

Health professionals working for and on behalf of the CIA monitored the interrogations of detainees, collected and analyzed the results of those interrogations, and sought to derive generalizable inferences to be applied to subsequent interrogations. Such acts may be seen as the conduct of research and experimentation by health professionals on prisoners, which could violate accepted standards of medical ethics, as well as domestic and international law. These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity... The knowledge obtained through this process appears to have been motivated by a need to justify and to shape future interrogation policy and procedure, as well as to justify and to shape the legal environment in which the interrogation program operated.

The White Paper argues that the Bush administration's employment of medical professionals to "monitor" EITs was a way of pre-emptively protecting itself from charges that these practices were in violation of U.S. statutory and treaty obligations prohibiting torture. The hypothesis here is that advocates of EITs (like the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel) presumed that if they could point to the presence and oversight of medical professionals in these interrogations, their presence and oversight would validate the Bush administration's redefinition of procedures formerly considered torture (like waterboarding, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, temperature extremes, stress positions and prolonged isolation) as "safe, legal and effective" "enhanced interrogation techniques." The problem is, according to PHR, illegal and non-consensual human experimentation also constitutes a "war crime" (and, when its perpetration is systematic and widespread, a "crime against humanity"). So, effectively, the Bush administration and the CIA employed one criminal act (human experimentation) to protect itself against liability for another (torture).

Even those of us who are not medical professionals know that one of the fundamental precepts of medical ethics is primum non nocere ("first, do no harm"). But the legal proscription of unethical human experimentation is also codified in the Nuremberg Code and the so-called Common Rule, both of which cover not only medical professionals, but also extend to any "research" conducted by the CIA or the Department of Defense. Despite the creative redefinitions of torture as "safe, legal and effective" by the Bush administration, its legal counsel and the executors of EITs, it is undeniably clear that, at the very least, those techniques DO HARM. The fact that they employed medical professionals to ensure EIT harm stopped just short of death, and that those same medical professionals recorded and documented the effects of EITs in order to "perfect" their maximum-harm-short-of-death potency, is just another addition to our nation's growing, yet still unacknowledged, registry of shames.

It's unethical. It's illegal. It's a disgrace to all of us in whose name it was performed. Arrest them all, I say-- the soldiers, the doctors, the politicians that authorized them. the lawyers that protected them, and the corporate-security leeches that profited (and continue to profit) off of them. Drag them all before a judge and a jury and let justice be served.


Brian said...

Wow, simply appalling. The more I learn about the subject the more I'm taken about by how the evidence suggests how deeply entrenched and institutionalized this problem is. Which makes the issue all the more frustrating because it continually speaks to the failure of all the proposed (non)solutions put forward thus far that have seriously been considered at the highest policy-making levels.

In the public domain, at least, I think we need much more mainstream discussion of this problem and breaking down some of the relevant concerns, so that we can at least begin to seriously and intelligently tackle this, so hopefully bumper sticker slogans stop being the norm in this public debate. As I see it, for torture there are 3 main criteria at issue in the "whether or not to torture debate" (outside of the obvious "does it work" question...which by the way it doesn't), those are 1) numbers, 2) the importance of the objective, and 3) whether or not the potential subjects "deserve" to be subjected to torture.
Inevitably, I think, the latter category is going to be the one most focused upon.

I'm slightly hopeful, however, that at least more explicitly discussing this issue, rather than concealing it (which by and large has proven to be the norm), will move some of the hardliners more away from the "their terrorists do whatever to them" line. Since it will require more thought out and reasoned defenses (though one possible unfortunate consequence of that is that it likely would result in a largely case-by-case example sort of public debate). But, I'd hope that at least the very least having that type of discussion (even if an acceptable consensus is not reached and justice is not fully carried out) would ensure that such obviously impermissible and immoral actions as as torture experiments never get off the ground.

Lorenzo said...

As I previously posted, I am with the House of Lords on this one: this issue was settled in the C17th, why is it even up for discussion?

Alas, I know why: certain C16th and C17th conditions were again applicable and people took counsel of their worst fears and outraged tribalism and not the "better angels of our nature". Done by PoMo conservatives who do not understand the traditions they are allegedly conserving. But the House of Lords was right: we should not even have to be discussing the matter.

But, alas, people went there and so we do have to. The trouble is, too many people do not want to grapple seriously with the issue because to admit how wrong it all is is too unsettling. Getting past that wish to block realisation is a major difficulty to be overcome.

Chet said...

Given what Lorenzo says, that these issues have been decided so completely, why do you think that no such inquiry into these issues has actually been raised? To me it is a mystery. What is the reason that those who are blocking these inquiries are?

Lorenzo said...

Chet: that is a good question, given the US now has a Democratic Administration and Congress. It is not as if, for example, a previous Democratic-majority Congress was not willing to enquire into Republican Administrations with an eye to prosecutions (Watergate, Iran-Contra). One would think there is partisan advantage to be had at the very least: usually a good political motivator. But perhaps enquiring into the actions of a former Administration give less advantage than enquiring into the actions of present ones with an eye to the next election.

Perhaps they are worried about what they might find and that further reduces the incentive.