Psychology and torture – a literature overview

Capitol Hill at Night (c/o Jeff Nickel on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Content warning: some of the materials referred to below may contain content that some may find distressing.

There has been a lot of media coverage of the US Senate intelligence committee’s report on CIA torture since the publication of the summary yesterday. One of many areas of controversy has been the role of psychologists in assisting the development of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, as well as the position taken by the American Psychological Association (APA).

So, where can you find out more about this story, the position of the APA and its UK equivalent, the British Psychological Society (BPS)?

Definitions of Torture

  • The International Criminal Court Act (2001) sets out the definition of ‘torture’ in relation to the UK’s obligations regarding the International Criminal Court (a separate Act applies to Scotland):

…the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions.

The Senate report

  • Whilst the full report is still classified by the US government, a 525 page summary has been published and is available online via CNN.
  • The Guardian has published a summary of what it calls are ‘the key findings’.

The position of the APA and the BPS

  • The BPS response to the published summary is available here. The BPS have previously repudiated torture and you can read the Declaration of the British Psychological Society Concerning Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on the British Medical Journal website here.

Research on psychology and torture

  • In 2009, a study on torture by Metin Başoğlu was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Başoğlu studied two groups of torture survivors, one from Turkey and one from the former Yugoslavia. He concludes that the “reality of torture is far more serious than people generally believe”. (Başoğlu’s research is available via PsycArticles – Athens login required.) DOI: 10.1037/a0015681
  • In 2008, Psychoanalytic Dialogues published a special issue on ‘Coercive interrogations and the mental health profession’ featuring a number of articles on psychology and torture (Athens login required).
  • In an article published by the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry in 2012, Kenneth Pope explored ideas and resources to support in conducting psychological evaluations of people who have been tortured. (Article available via ScienceDirect – Athens login required.) DOI: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2012.09.017

Support for victims of torture

  • Freedom From Torture provides direct clinical services to survivors of torture who arrive in the UK.

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