UD Professor sponsors APA resolution against torture, passed overwhelmingly

Molly Wierman, News Editor


The Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) recently passed a resolution that University of Dallas psychology professor, Dr. Scott Churchill, proposed in Feb. 2014 and submitted this July.

The resolution, which passed by a vote of 156-1 with seven abstentions prohibits members from participating in national security interrogations and interrogations that operate outside the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT).

Dr. Churchill pressed the initiative in the wake of hunger strikes at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

“It really broke my heart to know that people — human beings — were so desperate to escape the horrors to which they were being submitted that they would go to the length of trying to slowly starve themselves,” Dr. Churchill said. “This matters because it will save the lives and humanity of detainees who otherwise were being subjected to unfathomable horrors.”

Still, Dr. Churchill faced opposition to his proposal, which required not only a simple majority to place it on the council’s agenda, but also a 2/3 majority to change the agenda to include the initiative. Independent practitioners were likely to object to restrictions limiting where psychologists could practice.

The exact wording of the proposal also proved problematic.

“The prohibition was an uphill battle since we were trying to specify [Guantanamo] and black sites on the land, air and sea,” Dr. Churchill said. “This was a tricky issue that took many hours of collaboration … I had to spend the entire next month in daily e-mail threads 70-80 deep to get the wording right.”

The resolution’s critical objectives included re-defining the term “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (CIDTP) in existing resolutions and to urge the U.S. government to withdraw its reservations to the UNCAT when it ratified the treaty in 1994. These reservations allow the U.S. government to define CIDTP as it is already defined in the U.S. Constitution. Dr. Churchill stated that the U.S. government used the reservations to continue torturing detainees despite UNCAT’s prohibition against CIDTP.

“[President George W. Bush] instructed the Attorney General’s office to find wording that would allow us to torture detainees without it officially or technically being ‘torture,’” Dr. Churchill said. “Hence the use of the U.S. reservations, which effectively gutted all APA policies.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the resolution in part responds to a July report by David H. Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor. The Hoffman report found that the APA had worked with the Pentagon to loosen ethical guidelines for interrogations and ignored psychologists who participated in torture.

Dr. Churchill said that such psychologists have been condemned by nearly all other psychologists, not only for their unethical behavior, but also for their ineffective techniques to extract information from detainees.

“I can tell you that the Army Field Manual on Interrogation has chapter after chapter stating … that coercive investigations do not yield credible intelligence,” Dr. Churchill said. “The best intelligence is obtained through rapport-building techniques.”

The Toronto Star reported that the next step for the resolution is to go to the APA’s ethics committee, which will then update the association’s guidelines to create more stringent, more enforceable guidelines for member conduct.

Dr. Churchill said that the moral values he has found at UD have helped to inspire his work on the resolution and other issues in psychology.

“I couldn’t be at UD for 35 years and not be personally moved and influenced by the high moral standards and ethical commitments of the faculty and students and administration,” Dr. Churchill said. “I am not Catholic myself, and the moral values that guided me here as someone raised in the Protestant tradition are those common values … which unequivocally view the safeguarding of human life—and all forms of life—to be among the highest values to which we can hold ourselves accountable.”

Dr. Charles Sullivan, associate professor of history, echoed the parallels between the resolution and UD’s commitment to moral and ethical excellence. “I think we can all be proud of a faculty achievement that affirms the rule of law and ethical principles that are at the center of Western Tradition,” Dr. Sullivan said.


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