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News and editorial

Petition Resolution Leads to New APA Policy

By Allen M. Omoto, SPSSI/Division 9 Representative to APA Council of Representatives

There has been a great deal of professional and public debate over the role of psychologists in interrogations conducted at U.S. detention centers for foreign detainees (e.g., the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba). Last fall, using a rarely used provision in the American Psychological Association bylaws, members of APA successfully petitioned to have a resolution on this topic placed directly before members for vote. Normally, resolutions and APA policy statements are vetted through a series of governance committees and boards in an attempt to insure that all stakeholders have input in the process; in this case, the resolution went directly to the full membership for vote.

In September 2008, this resolution was approved by a vote of 8,792 to 6,157. SPSSI was a consistent and vocal supporter of the resolution, including being one of only two APA divisions to publicly state its support and encourage its members to vote for it. The resolution states that “psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in isolation of, either international law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”

While the statement itself is strong, the implementation of the petition resolution was potentially confusing and thorny, especially because questions continued to be asked about different parts of the resolution and also because it had not traveled the usual APA governance path. Thus, then-APA President Alan E. Kazdin announced the formation of an Advisory Group to work on the implementation of the resolution. I was one of the people appointed to this Advisory Group, I think largely because of SPSSI’s advocacy and influence on this issue (see

The work of the Advisory Group was intense and compressed. The group included the drafters of the petition resolution, two members of the APA Board of Directors, and several members of the APA Council of Representatives (COR); our charge was to clarify the adopted policy statement and to suggest possible implementation activities, all by the end of 2008. We had a face-to-face meeting in November at which we hashed out what we thought needed to be clarified, discussed a wide range of ideas for possible implementation of the resolution, identified documents and source material that could be utilized for interpreting and implementing the resolution, and developed a plan of action for completing our report. It was challenging to balance the concerns of a diverse set of constituencies in this work. Moreover, members of the Advisory Group came to our task with different goals and priorities and with a range of APA governance experience. In the end, we developed what we thought was a solid report that both clarified the intent and scope of the resolution and also offered several recommendations for its implementation. What was particularly impressive was that we were able to submit this report as a consensus document; all members of the Advisory Group endorsed its contents.

At its recent (February, 2009) meeting in Washington, DC, the APA ‘s main decision-making body, COR, voted to receive this report by an overwhelming margin. Some of the most important elements of this vote (which actually included several motions) included stipulating that the petition resolution is now “complete” making it current APA policy, and naming the policy, “Psychologists and Unlawful Detention Settings with a Focus on National Security.” In addition, COR forwarded our report to APA Central Office and relevant boards and committees for their review and appropriate action, and directed APA Central Office to include in its regular reports description of the steps taken to implement the policy. This outcome was close to as much as the Advisory Group had realistically hoped for.

The process has been slow, involved work within and outside the APA, and also required vigilance by SPSSI and other organizations. And, of course, there is more to accomplish. However, and for now, this policy in combination with previously approved APA resolutions against torture provide psychologists and especially the APA with a set of interlocking resolutions and policy statements that speak to the protection of human rights in unlawful detention settings. Furthermore, there is guidance for when and how psychologists should conduct themselves in these settings. SPSSI has played a crucial role in helping develop these policies and will continue to monitor and be involved in their implementation and in this set of issues.


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