Psychologists take a stand against inhumane treatment of informants

We have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing and documenting anthropologists’ involvement in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, including “the AAA’s stand against the Human Terrain System program”: Throughout the course of these discussions one question that has come up is how the AAA’s position compares with that taken by other professional associations — is it atypically political, for instance?

Its for this reason that I wanted to spotlight the “American Psychological Association’s decision”: (“full text here”: which states that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law or the US Constitution, unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights. This follows on from a resolution last year in which the APA declared that it was unethical for its members to involve themselves in “degrading or inhumane treatment of research subjects”:

Now, you might think that it does not take a lot of moral courage for the APA to declare torture like waterboarding to be unethical… except for the fact that there are lots of extremely powerful people in the world who don’t even consider it torture. One might also argue that there is a big difference between the APA’s position and the AAA’s, since the work being done by HTS teams does not directly involve torture. But of course the APA position is much broader than a non-controversial opposition to torture — it covers all forms of degrading and inhumane treatment. It indicates that professional associations are willing to take a stand for ethical treatment of human subjects. In regards to HTS, it focuses attention on the need (which we’ve mentioned many times before) for some transparency on HTS’s part so that we can have some sense of what they are doing, and whether it has negative impacts on informants — something that is harder to track but nonetheless just as serious. Weeks and weeks ago a commenter mentioned that HTS would be making some publications available someday. I had no idea whether they actually knew anyone in the organization but… as of yet we still have nothing. Which is not exactly inspiring.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

3 thoughts on “Psychologists take a stand against inhumane treatment of informants

  1. Good for the APA. I’m impressed to see such a conservative organization speaking so clearly about appropriate professional behavior and ethics. Makes me wonder what members of the more progressive AAA would do if given the chance to express its displeasure with Human Terrain and other military uses of “anthropology”.

    Whatever happened to the resolution introduced by Terry Turner at the AAA meeting last year demanding that anthropologists stop secret military research? It passed with a clear majority, as did John Kelly’s resolution demanding that the AAA leadership take action on this and let the membership know what’s happening.

    So what is happening?

  2. I’m going to be the killjoy here, not because I am of the opinion that the AAA shouldn’t be more engaged a discussion about these issues but because I think that the issues involved in creating official statements addressing them are complex in the extreme.

    On their FAQ page the APA lists the following as falling under their definition of ‘torture’:

    mock executions; water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation; sexual humiliation; rape; cultural or religious humiliation; exploitation of fears, phobias or psychopathology; induced hypothermia; the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances; hooding; forced nakedness; stress positions; the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate; physical assault including slapping or shaking; exposure to extreme heat or cold; threats of harm or death; isolation; sensory deprivation and over-stimulation; sleep deprivation; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to an individual or to members of an individual’s family.

    This seems to me to beg the question, “Well, what about the US prison system?” (And the APA may have dealt with this issue elsewhere.) Does this mean that APA members are prohibited from being part of US prison staffs? Apparently not, so long as they don’t take part in these acts themselves or in any planning for such acts:

    Psychologists are absolutely prohibited from knowingly planning, designing, participating in or assisting in the use of all condemned techniques at any time and may not enlist others to employ these techniques in order to circumvent this resolution’s prohibition.

    Are APA members barred from analyzing data obtained via torture? The association addresses the use of such data in legal proceedings in such a way that it seems clear that any such analysis would be frowned upon, but they don’t seem to explicitly address the issue:

    Research has shown that information obtained through torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading interrogation is unreliable. APA believes it is also unethical to use testimony obtained under immoral conditions or through techniques that are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. APA’s 2007 resolution calls on all U.S. courts to reject any and all testimony resulting from torture or other forms of inhumane treatment.

    So I’m not sure that the APA’s policies and resolutions curtail HTS in any way. Rex acknowledges this when he states that the recent APA resolution “focuses attention on the need (which we’ve mentioned many times before) for some transparency on HTS’s part so that we can have some sense of what they are doing, and whether it has negative impacts on informants—something that is harder to track but nonetheless just as serious.” How might the AAA work to turn absence of evidence into evidence of no harm? Apart from funding fellowship positions that would amount to disciplinary IA, nothing comes to mind except a call for more strenuous documentation of professional activity. Is there any practical way for the AAA to make that a norm without opening the door to negative repercussions for those anthropologists not employed by HTS? Given that one of the perks of being an academic is having a certain measure of freedom over how you spend your working day I don’t think AAA members are going to support a resolution calling for complete documentation of professional activity (by which I mean a degree of documentation going beyond that of a tenure file). I suppose the AAA could try to deal with this by qualifying that anthropologists “in the public employ” should be made to provide this sort of extensive documentation, but wouldn’t that apply to professors at state universities?

    What does the APA resolution do except state that its members shouldn’t engage in torture? To my way of thinking that’s a very minimal statement, tantamount to making, “Conduct your professional life in such a way that it reflects basic human decency” official policy. I think it’s a fair question to ask whether an organization even needs to make that sort of statement. If the members of the AAA feel the need to do so they might pull a few lessons in what not to do from the APA’s resolution. Be explicit in your language—does ‘setting’ mean “the physical vicinity” only or something more like “for an organization that”? And is it really advisable to try to formulate your resolution in such a way that it attempts to hold your members to both constitutional and international law, which, apart from bringing up issues of sovereignty to which anthropologists should be sensitive also introduces ambiguities in interpretation that could only be addressed by a conflict of law expert?

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