Torture and Human Rights Abuses – Comment by IUPsyS President Saths Cooper

The New York Times article of 30 April 2015 (‘American Psychological Association Bolstered C.I.A. Torture Program, Report Says’) has resurrected the spectre of psychologists’ involvement in torture and other human rights abuses in an era of prevailing global insecurity occasioned by terror and its consequences. 


When any group is perceived as being under threat[1], certain members of that group can easily resort to a justification of the methods that they may utilise or rely on to protect their apparent group interests. Participation in politics, the military, other state organs and private entities geared at the protection or promotion of one’s own or specific group interests, is the right of any scientist. Condoning or abetting acts of blatant abuse are not, especially for a profession that is broadly regarded as having healing and caring amongst its widely acknowledged aims. Complicity in or silence during human rights abuses can only but undermine the credibility of psychology.


The International Council for Science (ICSU) comment that

“The potential for the misuse of science is broader and arguably greater and more dangerous than at any time in the past. International terrorism, and associated political and military conflicts, have brought with them prejudicial behaviour and new constraints on scientific activity (ICSU, 2004)“


In the early 1970s, the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) confronted such issues of “severe political oppression, disappearance of dissenters, and widespread tales of rape, torture, and murder evident in several countries of South America” (Rosenzweig et al., 2000, p.153).

“Rumors that psychologists working for the military governments in these countries were aiding and abetting the mental breakdown of dissenters in order to force confessions were particularly disturbing.” 

The American Psychological Associatio), then an IUPsyS member in its own right, “asked the Union to address these issues” (Ibid.).


The IUPsyS Executive Committee (EC) – at its meeting in Montréal, Canada, on 27 July 1974 – was explicit 

“that the International Union of Psychological Science denounces vigorously all practices that are contrary to the high level of morality that must regulate the scientific and professional roles assumed by psychologists in modern society” (Ibid., p.159). 

The EC began a process of proactively engaging national associations of psychology to establish “formal codes of scientific and professional ethics and conduct” (Ibid., p.153) and urged them “to accept responsibility for monitoring the compliance of their individual members and for applying sanctions where their code had been violated” (Ibid., p.154).


Notably, R. W. Russell from the USA, who had served on the IUPsyS EC from 1957 to 1980 in various capacities, including President, led the discussion. Wayne Holtzman, who served as Secretary-General from 1972 to 1984, organised a special symposium at the International Congress of Psychology that was held in Paris from 18 to 25 July 1976 “on the subject of scientific and professional ethics and conduct, with particular reference to the issues of oppression and torture” (Ibid., p.159). Otto Klineberg, another American[2], who served in the EC from 1951 to 1969 in various capacities, including President, chaired this symposium which attracted “a large, standing-room-only audience” (Ibid., p.158).


On 27 July 1976, the IUPsyS Assembly resolved that because the subject of our science is behaviour, it was

“particularly concerned with any acts by which individuals in a systematic and deliberate way infringe upon the inviolable rights of human beings, regardless of race, religion, or ideology, these rights being guaranteed by the Charter of the United Nations; and which is concerned with strict observance of professional standards of ethics in the practice of psychology” (Ibid., p.159).   


The Assembly unanimously declared that:


“It proclaims that no psychologist, in the exercise of his or her professional functions, should accept instructions or motivations that are inspired by considerations that are foreign to the profession; 


It protests solemnly against any use of scientific data or of professional methods of psychology that impair the above-mentioned rights;


It formally condemns any collaboration by psychologists – whether actively or passively, directly or indirectly – with the above-mentioned abuses, and it urges its members to oppose any abuses of this sort;


It requests each member-society to make certain that it has enacted a code of ethics and to take those actions required by its code against any member guilty of such abuses against human rights;


It declares that the Executive Committee … is ready to support, with all means at its disposal, any action undertaken by a member-society in order to carry out the terms of the present resolution” (Ibid., p.159).


The Assembly welcomed the United Nations Resolution 3452 (XXX), adopted by the 30th Session of the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1975 on the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Ibid., p.159).


On 22 July 2008, at the Berlin Assembly, IUPsyS adopted the Universal Declaration of Ethical Principles for Psychologists – inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which a task team began working on from the July 2002 IUPsyS Singapore Assembly. The Declaration’s four principles – Respect for the Dignity of Persons and Peoples, Competent Caring for the Well-Being of Persons and Peoples, Integrity and Professional and Scientific Responsibilities to Society – speak to “the common moral framework that guides and inspires psychologists worldwide toward the highest ethical ideals in their professional and scientific work ” (IUPsyS, 2008).” The objective of the Declaration is

“to provide a moral framework and generic set of ethical principles for psychology organizations worldwide:

            1          To evaluate the ethical and moral relevance of their codes of ethics;

            2          To use as a template to guide the development or evolution of their codes of ethics;

            3          To encourage global thinking about ethics, while also encouraging action that is sensitive and responsive to local needs and values; and

            4          To speak with a collective voice on matters of ethical concern” (IUPsyS, 2008).


The APA’s own Ethics Code (2010) is informed by General Principles – Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, Fidelity and Responsibility, Integrity, Justice, and Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity – which “should be considered by psychologists in arriving at an ethical course of action”  (APA, 2010, p. 2). The APA’s Ethical Standards, which flow from these General Principles, prescribe “enforceable rules for conduct as psychologists” (Ibid.). APA members are adjured to

“to comply with the standards of the APA Ethics Code and to the rules and procedures used to enforce them. Lack of awareness or misunderstanding of an Ethical Standard is not itself a defense to a charge of unethical conduct” (Ibid.).


IUPsyS adheres to the ICSU principle of the Universality of Science that embodies the 

“free and responsible practice of science, freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable opportunities for access to science and its benefits, access to data, information and research material; and actively upholds this principle, by opposing any discrimination on the basis of such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender, sex, sexual orientation, or age” (IUPsyS Statutes, 2012, p.1).


Unless another IUPsyS Assembly unanimously resolves to rescind our 27 July 1976 resolution, which is highly unlikely, it remains entrenched as inviolable IUPsyS policy. The APA is not a direct member of IUPsyS[3], but the United States National Academy of Sciences is our adhering body for the USA through the US National Committee for IUPsyS (USNC). The USNC, which represents all psychologists in that country at IUPsyS, includes leading APA members (National Academies, 2015). IUPsyS welcomes the 1 May 2015 response by APA CEO Norman Anderson to the New York Times affirming

“The A.P.A.’s strict policies prohibiting psychologists from participating in torture” and that the review by external attorney David Hoffman “will be made public, in its entirety” (Anderson, 2015) so that public trust in psychology may be swiftly restored.


IUPsyS recommends that all national, regional and international psychology associations carefully monitor human rights violations within their jurisdiction, especially where psychologists may be directly or indirectly involved. Acting swiftly to hold ourselves accountable when suspicions arise over alleged human rights abuses and “applying sanctions where ethical codes have been violated” (pace Rosenzweig et al., p.154) will hopefully avoid our science and profession from becoming mired in needless controversy, thus contributing significantly to mitigate reputation risk.


Even a cursory reading of the above should unequivocally elucidate the long-standing IUPsyS policy related to any involvement of psychologists in torture and other human rights abuses which is grounded in our established ethical principles and pronouncements. While behavioural knowledge can be used for nefarious purposes, as evidenced during times of war and man-made crises, the witting involvement of psychologists in torture and other human rights abuses cannot be condoned. Our claim to being human – indeed civilised – is revealed by how we treat the worst off in our midst.  



Anderson, N. B. (2015). Statement to the New York Times. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

APA (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Blumer, H. (1958). Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position.  The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 3-7.

ICSU. (2004). Universality of Science in a changing world. Paris, France: ICSU.

IUPsyS. (2012). Statutes and Rules of Procedure of the International Union of Psychological Science. Montréal, Canada.

IUPsyS. (2008). Universal Declaration of Ethical Principles for Psychologists. Retrieved from

National Academies. (2015). U.S. National Committee for IUPsyS. Retrieved from

Rosenzweig, M. R., Holtzman, W., Sabourin, M., & Bélanger, D. (2000). History of the International Union of Psychological Science. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

[1] Not quite the group threat theory that Blumer developed (1958).

[2] Five of the sixteen IUPsyS EC members were from the USA: Holtzman, Jerome Bruner, E H Jacobson, Mark Rosenzweig and Russell.

[3] Rosenzweig, during Holtzman’s term as IUPsyS President (1984-1988), ensured that the APA, a Charter Member of IUPsyS, was replaced by the USNC located at the US National Academy of Sciences (Rosenzweig et al., 2000, p. 180).