The Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have turned the spotlight on the complicity of medical professionals in the Central Investigation Agency’s recourse to abusive and unlawful interrogation methods during the post-9/11 ‘war on terror.’ The latest evidence, documented earlier as part of the horrors visited upon detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram airbase, underlines the imperative need to further codify such methods as illegal under international human rights law. The PHR findings focus on the psychological abuses recorded in the CIA Inspector-General’s 2004 report, but made public only recently following a law suit by the American Civil Liberties Union. There was resort to mock executions and the threat of imminent death and assault on family members, including sexual assaults — betraying the intent to terrorise and intimidate detainees. The forcible shaving of heads and beards was clearly designed to inflict personal and religious humiliation and trauma. If the intended effect of the infamous ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ such as water-boarding, stripping, sensory deprivation, and solitary confinement was the infliction of long-term bodily pain and injury, methods such as hooding gave interrogators anonymity and consequently impunity for their lawless actions.

While these means of mental torture were employed by the CIA, medical professionals, and psychologists actively colluded in the cruel and inhuman interrogations in cynical contempt for ethical and professional norms. Of particular concern are the extensive data they gathered on the basis of the reactions of detainees so as to determine the effectiveness of the interrogation techniques. The PHR rightly views this as amounting to unlawful human experimentation. The approach of the Obama administration to this dark chapter in contemporary American history has been to look ahead, rather than back, causing some consternation among civil rights groups and within the Democratic Party. President Obama’s more recent expression of a readiness to prosecute the architects of the torture laws, rather than those who merely enforced their criminal provisions, is perhaps an indication that the issue could become a political hot potato at home. What is absolutely clear is that how the people of the United States come to terms — or fail to come to terms — with the horrors inflicted on humanity in the name of the global war on terror will have a strong bearing on counter-terror strategies elsewhere.

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