Health professionals’ pledge rejects any form of participation in or condoning torture

Sean Murphy*

Physicians for Human Rights is sponsoring a Health Professionals’ Pledge Against Torture that includes statements that signatories will never “participate or condone” torture and support colleagues who “resist orders to torture or inflict harm.”  It also commits signatories to insist that their professional associations support those facing pressure “to participate or condone torture and ill-treatment.”

What is noteworthy is that the pledge is not limited to simply refusing to torture someone, but is a pledge against participation (which would include forms of facilitation like referral) and against condoning the practice.

Replace “torture” with commonly morally contested procedures and it becomes obvious that the ethical position taken by Physicians for Human Rights vis-à-vis torture is identical to the position of many health care professionals who object to practices like euthanasia or abortion for reasons of conscience.

Doctors launch online pledge against torture


Michael Cook*

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has launched an online pledge for health professionals across the United States to reject torture as an absolute wrong which can never be sanctioned.

“At a time when human rights are increasingly under threat, we’ve launched this pledge to marshal the powerful voices of health professionals across the United States and reaffirm their ethical duties to honour human dignity,” said PHR’s executive director, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)Donna McKay. . . .[Full text]

Navy Nurse Should Not be Punished for Declining to Force-Feed Guantánamo Detainees

PHR Welcomes American Nurses Association’s (ANA) Statement Supporting Nurses’ Professional Autonomy

Physicians for Human Rights

New York, NY – 11/19/2014

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today welcomed the American Nurses Association’s (ANA) statement supporting a nurse who refused to force-feed Guantánamo detainees based on his professional ethical obligations. PHR urged the U.S. Navy to end any disciplinary actions against the nurse, who has been charged with misconduct and faces potential discharge from the military.

“Nurses, like physicians, have professional duties to respect the autonomous decisions of their patients and never participate in ill-treatment or torture,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “This nurse has shown exemplary commitment to his profession’s ethics by refusing to comply with a military policy that has no clinical justification and is inherently harmful. The Navy should not punish him for refusing to compromise established ethical principles.”

Today’s statement represents the first time the ANA has spoken publicly about force-feeding at Guantánamo, signaling the wider nursing community’s interest in the nurse’s situation and the military’s treatment of medical professionals. The ANA also released communications it had with top defense officials urging them not to punish the nurse for exercising his professional rights and duties. PHR emphasized that the codes of conduct for nurses and physicians mandate respect for patient autonomy and the principle of doing no harm, and that military clinicians are legally and ethically bound to comply.

The Navy is considering holding an administrative trial that could lead to the nurse’s discharge from the Navy, in which he has served for 18 years. His decision not to participate in force-feeding was revealed through Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Guantánamo detainee challenging his force-feeding in federal court. Dhiab’s case has shed light on the cruel and unnecessary methods used at Guantánamo, including the use of five-point restraint chairs and forced cell extractions.

“All physicians and nurses share a duty to put their patients first and act in their best interests, no matter the circumstances,” said Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs. “Punishing this nurse for upholding the humane treatment of his patients sends a message that medical professionalism is not respected at Guantánamo.”

The World Medical Association and the American Medical Association are among the leading medical groups that prohibit force-feeding of competent adults. PHR said that health professionals should never take part, and pointed out that the main purpose of the Department of Defense’s force-feeding policy is to keep detainees from protesting over a decade of indefinite detention without charge. In response to criticism of these practices, the U.S. government has applied secrecy rules to any information regarding its treatment of hunger strikers.

PHR calls on the U.S. government to:

  • Immediately end the practice of force-feeding hunger strikers and institute policies and procedures consistent with the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo and Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers;
  • Ensure that no health professionals are compelled to participate in force-feeding, and that those who refuse do not face disciplinary or retaliatory actions for complying with their professional obligations; and
  • Commit to full transparency around hunger strikes at Guantánamo and medical management policies and protocols, including the release of Dhiab’s force-feeding videotapes.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to stop mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

Media Contact:

Vesna Jaksic Lowe, MS
Deputy Director of Communications, New York
vjaksiclowe [at] phrusa [dot] org

Physicians for Human Rights Criticizes Court Decision to Allow Force-Feeding

News Release

Physicians for Human Rights

New York, NY – 02/11/2014 A federal court today declined to stop force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees, allowing the inhuman and degrading practice to continue.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declined to issue a preliminary injunction to halt force-feeding, a type of intervention that violates core medical ethics and constitutes ill-treatment.

“The rights of men being held in Guantánamo are being completely ignored, and the hunger strike is the only option they have left to protest their indefinite detention, which has lasted more than 11 years without charges for some of them,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “By allowing the cruel and degrading practice of force-feeding to continue, the court has essentially authorized the continuation of an abusive tactic that violates human rights and fundamental medical ethics.”

The detainees being forced-fed are being held in indefinite detention, which is in itself a violation of human rights. A preliminary injunction would have at least stopped force-feeding, which constitutes ill-treatment and could rise to the level of torture. A call for injunctive relief for ill-treatment or torture should be granted under both international standards and the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

While the court did not immediately stop force-feeding by issuing an injunction, two of the three judges said the detainees did have a right to challenge the practice in court, paving the way for a continuing legal battle over the issue. The judges also pointed that that “force-feeding is a painful and invasive process that raises serious ethical concerns.” The legal challenge was filed on behalf of three detainees.