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California Becomes First State to Condemn Use of Torture in 'War on Terror'

by American Friends Service Committee Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008 at 3:23 PM
losangeles@afsc.org (213) 489-1900

Resolution to prevent California health professionals from engaging in torture is adopted by the California State Legislature.

SACRAMENTO, August 14, 2008 – The California Legislature today adopted a resolution aimed at preventing California health professionals from engaging in coercive interrogations of detainees at Guantánamo and other U.S. military prisons.

Senate Joint Resolution 19 instructs the state’s licensing boards to inform California doctors, psychologists and other health professionals of their obligations under national and international law relating to torture. The boards will warn the licensees that they may one day be subject to prosecution if they participate in interrogations that do not conform to international standards of treatment of prisoners.

“The resolution calls attention to the intolerable dilemma that torture presents when those who are supposed to be the healers in our society are involved in the abuse of prisoners,” said Eisha Mason, associate regional director for the American Friends Service Committee, one of the organizations that sponsored the resolution.

State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) introduced the resolution in response to evidence that – despite the medical oath to “first, do no harm” – some physicians, psychologists and other health personnel have been complicit in abusive interrogations of detainees by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“As professional licensure and codes of ethics are regulated by states, California has the obligation to notify members of laws concerning torture that may result in their prosecution,” said Ridley-Thomas.

SJR 19 aims to protect the integrity of the health professions and individual practitioners by informing them of their legal and ethical obligations, and giving them a legal reference to remove themselves from abusive situations should they have to contravene the orders of a military superior.

A survey of medical students conducted by the Harvard Medical School, published in the October, 2007 issue of the International Journal of Health Services, found that one-third of the respondents did not know that under the Geneva Conventions, they should refrain from participating in coercive interrogations.

“This is an important advance, not just in the U.S., but internationally as well,” said Dr. Steven H. Miles, professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota. “More doctors abet torture than treat its victims, and it is time for them to be called to the mission of medicine—not to practice torture—and to be reminded that they will be held accountable to international law.”

“No government has the authority to legalize torture,” Miles added.

The resolution further requests that the Department of Defense and the CIA remove California-licensed health professionals from participating in coercive interrogations.

“This has been an effort for almost three years,” said Dr. Jose Quiroga, himself a torture survivor and now medical director of Program for Torture Victims, a sponsor of the resolution. “The California Legislature is sending a message to the Federal Government that they are wrong, and I hope that other state legislatures will begin to do this.”

The passage of SJR 19 makes California the first state in the nation to officially condemn the use of torture since the beginning of the “War on Terror.” A measure currently under consideration by the New York State Legislature, which would prohibit the state’s health professionals from participating in the torture or improper treatment of detainees, is expected to pass later this year.

“California’s adoption of the resolution sends a clear message that we are going to live by the principles that this country is founded on,” said Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles, another of the resolution’s sponsoring organizations. “We will not let fear erode our civil liberties and we will hold health professionals accountable to ethical and legal standards.”

The California State Senate gave final approval to the resolution in a 21-13 roll call vote. On Tuesday, it passed the Assembly 45-31.

“Torture is much more than a political issue,” Ridley-Thomas said. “It is an ethical, moral and spiritual issue that has not only become a shame, but it is an evil in our midst.”

The Los Angeles offices of the American Friends Service Committee, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Program for Torture Victims coordinated the campaign in favor of SJR 19. The resolution had the additional support, through petitions and testimony, of numerous faith, human rights and medical groups including the California Medical Association.

The American Friends Service Committee is an international peace and justice organization founded in 1917 and governed by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Its programs of peace, relief, reconciliation and development are based on nonviolence and belief in the inherent goodness of all persons. In 1947, AFSC accepted the Noble Peace Prize on behalf of all Quakers worldwide. Its Pacific Southwest Regional Office is located in downtown Los Angeles.


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