More effort needed to prevent human rights abuses

June 22, 2006

More effort is needed to prevent human rights abuses, argues a senior doctor from Argentina in this week's BMJ.

In the past month, several medical associations have spoken out about the role of doctors in interrogation. These statements should bring medical debate on human rights to the forefront, but they are not enough, writes Professor Luis Justo.

One of the main reasons for reopening the discussion about the duties of health workers in the "war on terror" and its ethical implications is the existence of the so called biscuit teams (behavioural science consultation teams or BSCT). These teams operate in US military prisons and comprise psychologists, psychiatrists, and other health workers.

Last year, a US report on interrogation techniques in Guantanamo Bay, Afganistan, and Iraq, acknowledged that biscuit teams assisted in interrogations.

Professor Justo believes that biscuit teams' advice to interrogators should be questioned. "Regulations about what is considered "humane" for the Department of Defense may change over time, but it is clear that its criterion for "humanity" has dire ethical flaws," he says.

Fortunately many medical associations are speaking out against these practices. Last month, the World Medical Association (which has more than 80 national medical associations as members) revised its Tokyo declaration on torture. The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have also made statements about the role of doctors in interrogation.

There is also an urgent need to make clear to all health workers that participation in torture or abuse of prisoners is against the ethical core of healthcare professions, says the author.

Health students should be educated explicitly on active engagement with human rights, going beyond simply considering health to be a human right and ensuring abstention from participating in any behaviour which demeans human rights.

He suggests a proposal put forward 10 years ago for an international court to judge the behaviour of physicians and other health workers and to keep records on complicity in human rights violations merits further discussion.

Such a body could initially act by making public statements denouncing doctors who have committed documented violations of human rights, he says, but could also use its influence to urge national medical associations to revoke such doctors' licence to practice. "It would be a demanding task, but it would be worth the international effort to do it," he concludes.


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