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Medical torture (also known as a medical interrogation) describes the involvement and sometimes active participation of medical professionals in acts of torture, either to judge what victims can endure, to apply treatments which will enhance torture, or as torturers in their own right. Medical torture may involve the use of their expert medical knowledge to facilitate interrogation or corporal punishment, in the conduct of torturous human experimentation or in providing professional medical sanction and approval for the torture of prisoners. The term also covers torturous scientific (or pseudo-scientific) experimentation upon unwilling human subjects.

Medical ethics and international law

It is generally accepted that medical torture fundamentally violates medical ethics, which all medical practitioners are expected to adhere to.

  • The Hippocratic Oath makes explicit statements against deliberate harm not in the patient's best interests. These statements are often translated as "I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgement" and "to never deliberately do harm to anyone, for anyone else's interest." (Note: these statements are formulations of the ethical principles of beneficence and non-maleficence.)
  • In response to the Nazi human experimentation on prisoners, which were declared at the Nuremberg Trials to be "crimes against humanity", the World Medical Association developed the Declaration of Geneva to supplant the dated Hippocratic Oath. The Declaration of Geneva requires medical practitioners to state "[I, the medical practitioner] will maintain the utmost respect for human life from its beginning even under threat and I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity".
  • The Nuremberg Trials also led to the emergence of the Nuremberg code which explicitly outlines the boundaries of acceptable medical experimentation.
  • Additionally in response to the Nazi atrocities, the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 outright prohibits the torture of prisoners of war and other protected non-combatants.
  • The World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo (1975) [1] makes a number of specific statements against torture, including "The doctor shall not countenance, condone or participate in the practice of torture".
  • Also the UN Convention Against Torture, which applies not only to medical staff, prohibits the use of torture under any circumstance. The text explicitely states there is no exception to this treaty under which torture is allowed.
  • The UN Principles of Medical Ethiks relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UN.1982) applies specifically to medical and other health workers but it has no implementation mechanism to ensure enforcement. It is up to state, provincial, and national bodies to enforce the standards in the document.
  • The development of command responsibility established criminal liability for all people, including physicians, involved in crimes against humanity.

There remain gaps in regulation relating to medical torture in many countries:

  • Government sponsored torture and organized violence, with the complicity and or participation of health personnel, is internationally prohibited yet these violations occur with impunity in a significant amount of cases. An example of this impunity is found in the Abu Ghraib prison torture and prisoner scandal as well as documented by Amnesty International.
  • A higher standard of behaviour is expected of health professionals yet the UN Principles of Medical Ethics are not enforceable when governments are complicit in violations. This higher standard is reflected in the principles of beneficence, non-maleficence (above all do no harm), autonomy, justice, dignity and informed consent and these aren’t covered comprehensively by the UN Convention Against Torture.

Asserted instances

  • Between 1937 and 1945, Japanese medical personnel who were part of Unit 731 participated in the torture killings of as many as 10,000 Chinese, Russian, American and other prisoners as well as Allied POWs during the second Sino-Japanese War.[2]
  • During World War II, Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army tried out various biological weapons on Chinese subjects.
  • During World War II, the Nazi regime in Germany conducted human medical experimentation on large numbers of people held in its concentration camps. In particular, Josef Mengele's experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz earned him the nicknames "the Angel of Death" and "Dr. Death".
  • Japanese surgeons also performed vivisection and other medical experiments to torture American prisoners of war in several islands of the Pacific. [3] [4]
  • Between 1970 and 1971, mentally disorienting interrogation techniques were used against interned prisoners captured in Northern Ireland, including white noise. The Irish government complained to the European Commission for Human Rights, who found Britain guilty of torture; however the higher European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British government's actions were "inhuman and degrading but did not constitute torture". [5]
  • In Soviet mental hospitals, used to hold political prisoners, very unpleasant medications were given to these "patients" as a means of punishment. A psychiatric diagnosis was devised to describe people who oppose government policies.
  • In 1978, "Pisaot menuh" ("Human Experiments") were performed on seventeen political prisoners held at the infamous prison Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh under the Khmer Rouge.
  • A study called "The Aversion Project" found that gay conscripts in the South African Defense Forces (SADF) during the apartheid era had been forced to submit to "curing" their homosexuality, both by electroshock therapies and by botched sex changes.
  • There have been numerous claims that electroconvulsive therapy and prefrontal lobotomies and similar psychiatric treatments have sometimes been performed not in the patient's best interests, but rather as punishment for misbehaviour or to otherwise make the patient easier to manage. A classic example of this is the Lake Alice, New Zealand atrocity which occurred in the early 1970s. Children admitted to the Lake Alice Hospital's open child and adolescent unit were routinely punished with unmodified electroconvulsive treatment. Some governments (e.g. Norway and New Zealand) have since begun paying reparations to patients who suffered such treatments. The World Health Organization has called for a ban on unmodified ECT, and states no form of it should be used on children.

Asserted medical or professional complicity

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights' When Healers Harm campaign, health professionals were complicit in the torture and abuse of detainees during the so-called “war on terror” of U.S. President George W. Bush. Health professionals are those who are trained or licensed in a healing profession, including: medical doctors, psychiatrists, medical examiners, psychologists, and nurses. All of these professions have been implicated in the torture and abuse of prisoners in CIA secret prisons and in military detention centers, such as those in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Among other things, health professionals:

  • crafted abusive tactics and falsely legitimized their use;
  • advised interrogators on methods of abuse that would exploit prisoners’ vulnerabilities;
  • used medical procedures to harm prisoners;
  • gauged pain and monitored interrogations that risked leaving prisoners in need of treatment;
  • checked prisoners to certify that they were capable of surviving additional abuse;
  • conditioned medical or mental health treatment on cooperation with interrogation;
  • shared confidential patient information that was used to harm patients;
  • covered up evidence of torture and abuse; and
  • turned a blind eye to cruel treatment.

State licensing boards and the professional associations have the responsibility to uphold medical ethics and to hold medical professionals accountable for their participation in abuse. To date, none of these bodies has investigated – nor, in some cases, even acknowledged – abusive conduct by individual members of their professions. In 2009, after years of denial, the American Psychological Association finally recognized that psychologists had engaged in torture. However, the American Psychological Association has yet to acknowledge that psychologists were in fact integral to the Bush Administration’s torture policy. Some criticize the APA for failing to respond to allegations of “collusion between APA officials and the national security apparatus in providing ethical cover for psychologists’ participation in detainee abuse."[6]

Although the American Medical Association has made clear that physicians should not be involved in interrogations of any kind, it continues to insist that it has “no specific knowledge of doctors being involved in abuse or torture,” despite widely known evidence to the contrary, including government documents and Office of Legal Counsel memos, a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross and multiple accounts by survivors.[7][8]

Today, under President Barack Obama’s watch, certain forms of abuse continue.[9]

Some other accounts of medical or professional complicity in torture include:

  • The SERE ("Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape") program's chief psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks, issued guidance in early 2003 for the "behavioral science consultants" who helped to devise Guantánamo's interrogation strategy although he has emphatically denied that he had advocated the use of SERE counter-resistance techniques to break down detainees. The New Yorker notes that in November, 2001 Banks was detailed to Afghanistan, where he spent four months at Bagram Air Base, "supporting combat operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters".
  • A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch suggested that torture was routine under the appointed Iraqi government. Human Rights Watch Report
  • Dr. J.C. Carothers, British colonial Kenyan psychiatrist, has been implicated in designing interrogation of Mau Mau prisoners.
  • Similarly, it has been implied that Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Dr. Ayad Allawi violated his obligation to medical ethics whilst serving as Western European chief of secret police for the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein. However, the same sources allege that Allawi had abandoned his medical education at that point and his medical degree "was conferred upon him by the Baath party." [10].

In fiction

See also


  • Dr. J.C. Carothers, M.B. D.P.M. 1954. The Psychology of the Mau Mau. Government Printer, Nairobi, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya.
  • Carolina Elkins. 2005. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-7653-0.
  • Steven H. Miles, Abu Ghraib: its legacy for military medicine; The Lancet volume 364 issue 9435, page 725 (August 2004) [11]
    Related editorials:
    • The Lancet editorial staff, How complicit are doctors in abuses of detainees?; The Lancet volume 364 issue 9435, page 637 [12]
    • Harvey Rishikof and Michael Schrage, Technology vs. Torture; Slate, August 18, 2004. [13]
    • CNN editorial staff, Ethicist questions medical workers' role in abuse.;, August 19, 2004. [14]
    • John Carvel, Abu Ghraib doctors knew of torture, says Lancet report; The Guardian, August 20, 2004. [15]
  • Mikki van Zyl, Jeanelle de Gruchy, Sheila Lapinsky, Simon Lewin and Graeme Reid, The Aversion Project—psychiatric abuses in the South African Defence Force during the apartheid era.; South African Medical Journal volume 91 issue 3, page 216 (March 2001) [16] [17]
    Related editorials:
    • Paul Kirk, Apartheid army forced gay soldiers into sex change operations; Daily Mail & Guardian, July 28, 2000 [18]
    • Ana Simo, South Africa: Apartheid Military Forced Gay Troops Into Sex-Change Operations, The Gully, August 25, 2000 [19]
    • S. Predag, South African Gays Terrorized During Apartheid Era; Lesbian News, volume 26 issue 3 (October 2000)
  • Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot regime: Race, Power, and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1975; Yale University Press, 2002. pp. 438–439. [20]
  • Joost R. Hiltermann. "Deaths in Israeli Prisons." Journal of Palestine Studies. Spring 1990. Vol. 19: Issue 3. pp. 101–110.
  • Eliott Valenstein. Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness (Basic Books, 1986).
  • Stephen N. Xenakis. "From the Medics: Unhealthy Silence." The Washington Post. Feb. 6, 2005. p. B4. [21]

External links

eu:Tortura mediko

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