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Israel’s doctors must allay torture fears

cif Antony Lerman, 22 December 2009

Allegations of Israeli doctors colluding in the torture of Palestinians must be investigated

One of the disturbing features of the persistent use of torture by many countries in conflict situations around the world is the role some doctors play in condoning it. The World Medical Association (WMA), which “promot[es] the highest possible standards of medical ethics, [and] provides ethical guidance to physicians”, is crystal clear on this practice. Its 1975 Tokyo declaration states unequivocally that “physicians shall not countenance, condone or participate in the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures, and in all situations, including armed conflict and civil conflict”. True to its principles, in October, in response to reports about the possible collusion of doctors in the abuse of prisoners in Iran, the WMA passed a unanimous motion at its annual meeting in Delhi urging national medical associations to speak out in support of the rights of patients and doctors there. But is the WMA being selective in its condemnations?

The specific problem of doctors’ complicity in the torture of detainees in the Middle East was raised at an international patients’ rights conference in Turkey in November. In a presentation she made, Dr Ruchama Marton, head of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I), called for the WMA to play a central role in establishing a network “to voice complaints and provide assistance to those who are willing to struggle against torture”. National medical associations and human rights organisations should work together “to campaign against torture in general and against the participation of physicians in torture procedures”. In saying this, Marton was thinking about what some regard as the very unsatisfactory situation in Israel.

Evidence has been produced by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) and PHR-I of doctors examining interrogated Palestinians before, during or after torture without documenting, reporting or resisting, and by providing medical documents and information to the bodies responsible for the torturing. These are all expressly prohibited under WMA and Israel Medical Association (IMA) guidelines, as is even the presence of a doctor where there is torture.

These allegations have never been seriously investigated by the IMA, despite persistent urging by PHR-I as part of its long struggle against the use of torture and its bringing of the issue to the attention of the WMA. In the summer the IMA cut ties with the human rights body, accusing it of fomenting antisemitism. Dr Yoram Blachar, the chairman of the IMA, wrote in a letter that “the outrageous situation is that PHR’s activity serves as fertile ground for antisemitism, anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism”.

In May, a letter sent to the WMA council through the chairman, Dr Edward Hill, signed by 725 doctors from 43 countries, and supported by PHR-I, requested that the WMA investigate the IMA for failing to conform to its code on the absolute prohibition of doctors participating in and condoning torture. And it called for the immediate resignation of the then president of the WMA, Blachar. In November, Dr Derek Summerfield of the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, convenor of the group who signed the May letter, wrote to the new WMA president, Dr Dana Hanson, on behalf of the lead signatory Professor Alan Meyers of Boston University, and again pressed for action to investigate the IMA. And he also referred to the apparent discrepancy between the treatment of reports of collusion in torture in Iran and in Israel. At the end of October, Meyers spoke to WMA council chair Dr Edward Hill and was told that the WMA would neither be responding to nor commenting on the May letter. So far, that stance seems remain in place.

The current situation is deeply unsatisfactory. Even though Israel’s supreme court in 1999 finally ruled that methods of torture used at that time by the security forces were illegal, a loophole was left for interrogators who tortured in “ticking bomb” situations, which ultimately allowed old forms of torture to creep back in by the mid-2000s, as a 2007 report by PCATI showed. So there is good reason to be seriously concerned about the use of torture today.

It is important to recognise that torture would not be possible without the support and safety net of doctors and that doctors are key in exposing and stopping the practice. Israel therefore needs to do two things. First, allegations that Israeli doctors colluded in torture must be confronted and thoroughly investigated. Otherwise, this ongoing affair can only damage the reputation of the vast majority of doctors in Israel, many of whom belong to PHR-I, who will have no truck whatsoever with torture and who assiduously apply their principles of medical ethics equally to all who come into their care, irrespective of national, ethnic or religious origin.

Second, PHR-I proposals for guidelines to help doctors identify torture and for legislation that would make it obligatory to report suspicion of torture and protect whistleblowers – measures that would protect doctors’ independence and make it much harder for interrogators to use torture – must be adopted by the IMA and the government.

No double standards are being applied to Israel here. By implementing the proposals, Israel would simply be conforming to WMA guidelines – and doing at least one thing that would help repair its international position.

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