Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

31.  Submission from Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Liverpool


  The recent UN report on the abuse of detainees in Guantanamo Bay contained a reference to the extensive use of psychological methods amounting to torture and also referred to the role of psychologists and psychiatrists in interrogation techniques. Coercive psychological techniques such as those reportedly used to mistreat detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay have been widely reported in a variety of settings, as has the possible involvement of psychological or psychiatric expertise. It is profoundly worrying that such techniques are employed, frightening to observe that they may be becoming more widely used, and important to think of how such abuses may be prevented.

  UK and US personnel trained in psychological techniques (although not necessarily chartered psychologists) are almost certainly involved in the R2I (resistance to interrogation) programmes taught to British and US military specialists. It is suggested that one key role for psychologists in the R2I programme is to check for the possibility of psychological damage. Psychologists, of course, study all aspects of human behaviour, including coercion and torture. Equally, members of the UK armed forces are likely to be exposed to danger and they should be prepared for that. But there are aspects of the present situation that are deeply troubling.

  The CIA's "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual—1983" was originally obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Baltimore Sun in 1997. It lists a wide range of psychological techniques now widely observed in the "war on terror" and well-known from other conflicts internationally. The document is freely available in electronic form from academic libraries in the US, and appears to have benefited from academic psychological input. The New York Times, on June 24, 2005 ("Interrogators Cite Doctors' Aid at Guantanamo Prison Camp") cited a number of sources indicating that psychologists or psychiatrists have assisted in what I would call the psychological torture of prisoners. For instance, medical, psychiatric or psychological staff in units known as Behavioral Science Consultation Teams—BSCT or "biscuit" teams—advise interrogators on how to "break" detainees. In addition to the basic techniques of psychological coercion listed in the CIA manual, psychological quirks of the detainees (for example a particular fear of the dark) have apparently been identified and then used strategically by interrogators. It is of note that the US military have apparently defended the right of medical personnel to act in this manner.

  In addition to the perversion of medical and psychological care that this implies, the apparent increase in the use of psychological techniques of coercion has other worrying features. It seems that the US Government has tried to excuse the CIA and the US military from laws prohibiting the use of torture, and has tried to define torture in a very limited manner that refers explicitly to pain and tissue damage. The US Department of Justice's Policy Forum has apparently advised the White House that torture "may be justified". Clearly, such a strategy would have the consequence of encouraging or permitting the use of psychological torture techniques. It is possible that such approaches are also used because, if one has no marks of injury, evidence is lacking. Perhaps, also, such techniques are seen as fitted to a war partially delineated by beliefs.

  The psychological impact of psychological torture, degradation and abuse is well known. Indeed, the CIA's own 1983 Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual warns that: "Extreme deprivation of sensory stimuli induces unbearable stress and anxiety and is a form of torture . . . There is a profound moral objection to applying duress beyond the point of irreversible psychological damage". The forms of psychological abuse reported as occurring in the "war on terror" can be devastating on the mental health of victims. Amnesty International has documented these consequences extensively, and academic mental health workers have commented on the severity of the possible consequences. In the UK, in a different-context, it is possible to achieve a conviction for grievous bodily harm as a result of purely psychological abuse. It is highly likely—as the CIA warns—that hooding, sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation and intense fear will harm the victim.

  One example given in the recent UN report involves a female interrogator sexually taunting an observant Muslim subject, including removing her clothes, then putting her hand down her knickers and removing what appeared to be menstrual blood, which she then smeared on the subject's face (it was, in fact, red marker-pen ink). For a Clinical Psychologist, this behaviour is psychological abuse, and is either designed to, or in any case will, harm the individually psychologically.

  International law is clear. As you and your Committee will clearly know, the Geneva Convention of 1949 bans "physical or mental torture, or any other form of coercion [. . .] threat[s], insult[s], or [. . .] any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind". The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlaws "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". Psychological abuse such as that carried out at Guantanamo Bay will not only cause harm, it is illegal.

  We are all aware of the failure of many Governments to act appropriately to remove the scourge of torture. The prevalence of psychological techniques perhaps warrants particular attention. In addition to protecting people against physical harm, people's mental well-being must be protected. People must be protected against indefinite detention—itself testified to lead to serious mental health problems. People need protection from techniques such as routine hooding and sensory deprivation techniques. And people, of course, need protection from the techniques reported by the UN as being used in a variety of international facilities.

  This requires action by international bodies and Governments as well as professional bodies and non-governmental organisations. Psychologists, including myself; are members of non-governmental organisations active in the area of human rights. Members of our professional bodies (again including me) have attempted to move this debate forward using those avenues. But such avenues often feel blocked. Recent Parliamentary Written Questions submitted by Neil Gerrard MP (Hansard 12 Jul 2004: Column 994W; 179170) asking "whether chartered psychologists have assisted in the past and are assisting the UK armed forces in the use or development of psychological coercive techniques" were replied to by the Minister of State with the statement that "`Psychological coercive techniques' is not a term recognised by the United Kingdom armed forces and is therefore not defined in our doctrine. No use is made of such techniques". Such an answer rather reminds me of Ms Harman's comment that she did not recognise the term "extraordinary rendition".

  In the light of all these concerns, I believe there are a number of issues that may be appropriate for a Parliamentary Committee to pursue:

    (i)  Whether any UK armed forces or security service personnel have been involved in the use of such techniques internationally,

    (ii)  Whether there is any knowledge on the part of UK armed forces or security service personnel in the use of such techniques by our international allies,

    (iii)  Whether any UK courts or tribunals have received evidence that may have been obtained following the use of such techniques.

  I believe, further, that it would be appropriate for the UK Government to be required, through the legitimate pressure of your Committee, to confirm that such techniques, as they would commonly be understood, constitute a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. Finally, of course, I believe it would be appropriate for the UK Government to be required, again through the legitimate pressure of your Committee, to press our international allies to behave likewise.

  I know that your Committee has an enormous remit, but I hope you will understand that the Joint Committee has a unique role and a very high reputation. I wonder, therefore, whether this issue is one that would interest your Committee.

23 March 2006

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