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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

BU: From Nuremberg to Guantánamo, Medical Professionals Enabled Torture

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial, in which Nazi doctors were charged for their involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Much more recently, American health professionals have played a critical role in torture committed in the CIA “Black Sites” and at U.S. military detention centers including Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantánamo Bay.

Now, a journal article by two researchers from the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights  at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) evaluates the similarities between the use of medical professionals in the Holocaust and the War on Terror.

Writing in a special issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Dr. Sondra Crosby and Mr. Gilbert Benavidez emphasized that the use of torture on thousands of people during the War on Terror is far from the scope and scale of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Instead, they wrote that, because the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in Guantánamo and at CIA black sites meet the United Nations definition of torture, the involvement of medical professionals in “designing, justifying, and carrying out” those acts raises similar issues to those at the center of the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trials.

In both cases, the authors wrote, “health professionals discarded their ethical obligation to prevent harm to people and instead became agents of the state.” Both cases also shared a legal argument: The medical professionals’ actions were deemed lawful by their respective governments.

The researchers noted that little information is available about detainees at the black sites or military detention centers, but that a total of 780 men have been detained at Guantánamo Bay. Nine have died while imprisoned at Guantánamo, 731 have been released without charges, and 41 remain as of 2017. Of the 119 men reported to have been detained in CIA black sites, the researchers wrote, 39 are reported to have undergone “enhanced interrogation,” and 26 were detained because of mistaken identity.

The authors wrote that a major cultural change is required, where torture is unacceptable, and shifting “the focus of health care professionals’ behavior from worrying about what is legal or authorized toward a culture focused on ethics, morality, compassion, and human rights.

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