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Torture, Redux: Did Nurses Assist?

April 8, 2009
photo by jimpg2 / Jimmy Palma Gil, via Flickr

photo by jimpg2 / Jimmy Palma Gil, via Flickr

In October 2004 AJN published “The Fear Is Still in Me” by Kathleen McCullough-Zander and Sharyn Larson, an article detailing how nurses might identify, assess, and treat the approximately 400,000 to 500,000 survivors of torture now living in the U.S. (I was the editor). It’s not a subject most people like to think about, but there it is.

And now here it is again, according to a “long-secret” report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that was completed in 2007 and only recently published online by the New York Review of Books. Only this time, it’s health care personnel—a group that “should be understood to include physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and other para-health staff”—who allegedly participated in torture. No, they weren’t there to safeguard the victims. As an article about the report in Monday’s New York Times notes, the role of such professionals “was primarily to support the interrogators, not to protect the prisoners.”

Does it matter that those tortured were suspected of terrorism and were being held by the CIA overseas? Not to the International Council of Nurses, which has issued and twice revised a position statement that calls for nurses to actively oppose torture; I can find no exceptions named. Indeed, many nurses—including McCullough-Zander and Larson—have argued that the prevention of human rights abuses is itself a nursing responsibility. It’s an argument that needs heeding, again.

—Sylvia Foley, AJN senior editor


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2 comments

  1. Ken,I assume you’ve posted this letter to AJN’s blog to inform others on that you sent the original letter by mail or email attachment directly to Rebecca Patton.the International Council of Nurses might also be interested in your recommendations. They have had a policy against nurses’ involvement in torture for a number of years. I agree that we need a strong stance from the profession on this issue. It’s horrifying to think that nurses and other health care professionals may have stood by or even participated in things like evaluating a prisoner’s capacity to withstand more waterboarding or other torture.
    Diana J. Mason, Editor-in-Chief

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  2. FYI:

    letter to the ANA about torture and ill-treatment
    from CANADA

    19 April 2009

    President Rebecca M. Patton, MSN, RN, CNOR

    American Nurses Association

    8515 Georgia Avenue Suite 400

    Silver Spring MD USA 20910

    Dear Rebecca M. Patton,

    On December 15, 2004 I wrote the ANA regarding concerns about the possibility of nurses being involved in torture and or cruel inhumane treatment of detainees during US custody in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.

    As you may recall the ANA wrote Secretary Rumsfeld February 3, 2005 about possible nurses involvement in abuse in US detention and interrogation facilities, and received a reply from Major General Gale S. Pollack on February 24, 2005. The Major General explained to the ANA that the Nurses Corps had not been involved and that any wrong-doing would be aggressively followed-up. She limited her comments to Iraq.

    Subsequently we have learned that torture and abuse has been more common than previously noted. Please refer to documents;

    1) US Department of Justice. Office of Legal Counsel. Washington D.C. 20530. August 1 2002. Memorandum for John Rizzo. Acting General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency. Interrogation of Al Quaeda Operative. pp. 1 – 80.

    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/images/nytint/docs/justice-department-memos-on-interrogation-techniques/original.pdf accessed April 19 2009

    2) International Committee of the Red Cross. ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody. Washington D.C. February 14 2007. http://www.nybooks.com/icrc-report.pdf accessed April 19 2009

    As you may realize involvement by nurses in torture or abuse could include direct monitoring of prisoners during abusive interrogations or awareness of unethical treatment and failure to report to appropriate bodies. Involvement also refers to higher ranking nurses. If officers are aware of policies that approve torture or abusive treatment as well as policies that require the involvement of health personnel I submit that there could also be culpability.

    May I turn your attention to the time-line of the correspondence I refer too; I note that Major General Pollack’s letter (February 24, 2005) to the ANA was written over two years after the US Department of Justice submitted the memo (August 1 2002) approving torture and ill-treatment. Moreover the ICRC obtained access to fourteen prisoners at Guantanamo October and December 2006. The ICRC documents abuse on prisoners captured during 2002 to 2005. Both publications, one policy and the other testimony, illustrate that health personnel had a role in the torture and abusive treatment.

    In light of this new information I propose the following more active strategy by the ANA independent of the American Military:

    Investigate nurses’ direct involvement in torture, and or abusive treatment, by the American Military –following-up on nurses who were involved.

    Review which military nurses, including high ranking nurses, knew about the abuse, or policy condoning abuse – ensure adequate penalties for not reporting violations and not intervening to stop violations;

    Clarify the human rights training and support of military nurses – correct a lack of training and support.

    Urge other health professionals to participate in the above review.

    I would also like to recommend an international conference sponsored by the ANA about this issue. I recommend seeking funding from a number of American and international foundations for this initiative.

    Thank you for your attention with this matter.

    With best wishes,

    Ken Agar-Newman

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