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Torturous acts

By Arthur Veno and Julie van den Eynde - posted Monday, 26 November 2007

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) recently announced its position on members’ involvement in the use, participation or provision of advice about torture and other injurious practices.  Unlike their American counterparts, Australian psychologists have rejected any involvement in torture or other forms of cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment.

The difference was seen in September 2007, when the former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Professor Gerald Koocher, was invited to the APS Annual Conference to air the issue with Australian psychologists. Earlier, Professor Koocher had convened a panel of United States psychologists to develop their policy which was adopted by a majority of APA Members’ votes in 2005-6. Of course, the APA condemned torture, but its leadership refused to accept the rulings of International Law as to what constituted torturous acts. “We are not going to be subjected to rulings by foreign courts” said Professor Koocher when pressed about the issue at the APS Conference.

Due to this position taken by the APA, torturous practices such as those shown in the widely circulated pictures from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, are developed and supervised by some United States psychologists. Indeed, these specific pictures taken of "detainees" being interrogated by staff were directed by United States psychologists at the time.


Professor Koocher informed Australian Psychologists that APA Psychologists’ roles included advising interrogators to use "culturally appropriate" techniques to get the best information from their captives.

For example, homosexuality is widely condemned in Islam, so the APA advisors suggested using homophobia as an interrogation technique to maximise the "disintegration of self" through various techniques including sodomy and forced "mock" fellatio.

It would be fair to say that most Australian psychologists did not want to make waves with their US counterparts. However, despite this acquiescence, a social action campaign was implemented by several highly respected senior psychologists to obtain the strongest possible statement from the APS.

Due, at least in part to this campaign, a strongly worded position was then adopted by the APS Board so that, unlike their US counterparts, Australian psychologists would be subject to ethical sanctions if they engaged in techniques including induced hypothermia, forced nudity, simulated sexual practices, forced-standing, sensory deprivation and other injurious practices.

Michael Otterman, the author of American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (Melbourne University Press, 2007), is an expert on the history of torture and its current use today. He recently returned to Sydney from an international speaking tour sponsored by Amnesty International. According to Otterman:

Following the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association banned their members from participating in coercive interrogations in CIA and military prisons. The American Psychological Association did not follow suit.

The APA allows its members to assist in "national security" interrogations in CIA secret prisons and in military facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Furthermore, APA psychologists are sanctioned to assist CIA interrogators in developing coercive detention regimes that incorporate the application of mind-altering substances, hooding, forced nakedness, stress positions, the use of dogs, physical assault including slapping or shaking, exposure to extreme heat or cold, threats of harm or death, sensory deprivation, over-stimulation and sleep deprivation. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, these methods are “tantamount to torture”.

United States interrogators rely on psychologists to supervise the application of these techniques. The American Psychological Association defines this supervisory role in terms of harm minimization. In their view, the psychologist's job is to prevent the level of coercion from reaching a point that can be considered 'torture' by United States’ courts. Crossing the hazy legal line from coercion to "torture" would place interrogators, and their superiors, in legal jeopardy.

It is for this reason why I fully endorse the APS resolution on torture. Australian psychologists should never be put into a similar position as their United States counterparts. This resolution ensures that this will not happen.

The Australian resolution has been widely acclaimed by many US, British, European, South African, South American and other nations’ psychologists. Prominent Australian Psychologist, Professor Paul Wilson, PhD, who was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his work in the area, describes the resolution as " … a rare example of members of an Australian professional society standing up to the pressure applied by the United States war machine". Richard Hil and Paul Wilson’s Dead bodies don’t count: Civilian casualties and the forgotten costs of the Iraq Conflict (Zeus Publications, 2007) provides a broader context to the APS Resolution on torture and these authors state “The Iraq war has led to a legacy of death and destruction - we can not let the de facto recognition of torture be yet another part of that legacy”.

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About the Authors

Arthur Veno, Ph.D. is an American trained Australian psychologist and author of several popular and over 150 academic books and articles. He is currently an Honorary Research Associate at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry. He is a widely known activist and received an award for Distinguished Contribution from the APS at the 2007 Annual Conference.

Julie van den Eynde, Ph.D. is currently a Lecturer in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Studies at The University of Queensland and publishes extensively in the areas of Criminology and Psychology on many diverse topics related to social justice issues.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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