WMA Statement on the Responsibility of Physicians in the Documentation and Denunciation of Acts of Torture or Cruel or Inhuman or Degrading Treatment
Adopted by the 54th WMA General Assembly, Helsinki, Finland, September 2003,
revised by the 58th WMA General Assembly, Copenhagen, Denmark, October 2007,
editorially revised by the 179th WMA Council Session, Divonne-les-Bains, France, May 2008
and by the 71st WMA General Assembly (online), Cordoba, Spain, October 2020
The dignity and value of every human being are acknowledged globally and expressed in numerous distinguished ethical codes and codifications of human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Any act of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment constitutes a violation of these codes and is irreconcilable with the ethical principles that lie at their core. These codes are listed at the end of this Statement (1).
However, in the medical professional codes and legal texts, there is no consistent and explicit reference to an obligation upon physicians to document cases and denounce acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of which they become aware or witness.
The careful and consistent documentation and denunciation of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by physicians contributes to the human rights of the victims and to the protection of their physical and mental integrity. The absence of documentation and denunciation of these acts may be considered as a form of tolerance thereof.
Because of the psychological sequelae from which they suffer, or the pressures brought upon them, victims are often unable or unwilling to formulate by themselves complaints against those responsible for the torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments they have undergone.
By ascertaining the sequelae and treating the victims of torture, either early or late after the event, physicians witness the effects of these violations of human rights.
The WMA recognizes that in some circumstances, documenting and denouncing acts of torture may put the physician, and those close to him or her, at great risk. Consequently, doing so may have excessive personal consequences.
This statement relates to torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments as referred by the United Nations Convention against torture, excluding purposely the role of physicians in detention appraisal addressed in particular by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela rules).
The WMA recommends that its constituent members:
- Promote awareness among physicians of The Istanbul Protocol, including its Principles on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. This should be done at the national level.
- Promote training of physicians on the identification of different methods of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments, to enable them to provide high quality medical documentation that can be used as evidence in legal or administrative proceedings.
- Encourage professional training to ensure that physicians include assessment and documentation of signs and symptoms of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments in the medical records, including the correlation between the allegations given and the clinical findings.
- Work to ensure that physicians carefully balance potential conflicts between their ethical obligation to document and denounce acts of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments and a patient’s right to informed consent before documenting torture cases.
- Work to ensure that physicians avoid putting individuals in danger while assessing, documenting or reporting signs of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments.
- Promote access to immediate and independent health care for victims of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments.
- Support the adoption of ethical rules and legislative provisions:
- Aimed at affirming the ethical obligation on physicians to report and denounce acts of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments of which they become aware; depending on the circumstances, the report or denunciation should be addressed to the competent national or international authorities for further investigation.
- Addressing that a physician’s obligation to document and denounce instances of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments may conflict with their obligations to respect patient confidentiality and autonomy.
- Physicians should use their discretion in this matter, bearing in mind paragraph 69 of the Istanbul Protocol (2).
- cautioning physicians to avoid putting in danger victims who are deprived of freedom, subjected to constraint or threat or in a compromised psychological situation when disclosing information that can identify them.
- Work to ensure protection of physicians, who risk reprisals or sanctions of any kind due to the compliance with these guidelines.
- Provide physicians with all relevant information on procedures and requirements for reporting torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments, particularly to national authorities, non-governmental organizations and the International Criminal Court.
- The WMA recommends that the constituent members’ codes of ethics include the physician’s obligations concerning documentation and denunciation of acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishments as they are stated in this document.
- The Preamble to the United Nations Charter of 26 June 1945 solemnly proclaiming the faith of the people of the United Nations in the fundamental human rights, the dignity and value of the human person.
- The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948 which states that disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.
- Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims that no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
- The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), Adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held at Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977, revised and adopted by the General Assembly on 17 December 2015.
- The American Convention on Human Rights, which was adopted by the Organization of American States on 22 November 1969 and entered into force on 18 July 1978, and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, which entered into force on 28 February 1987.
- The Declaration of Tokyo, Adopted by the 29th World Medical Assembly, Tokyo, Japan, October 1975 Editorially revised by the 170thWMA Council Session, Divonne-les-Bains, France, May 2005 and the 173rdWMA Council Session, Divonne-les-Bains, France, May 2006.
Revised by the 67th WMA General Assembly, Taipei, Taiwan, October 2017.
- The Declaration of Hawaii, adopted by the World Psychiatric Association in 1977.
- The Principles of Medical Ethics Relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, Particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1982, and particularly Principle 2, which states: “It is a gross contravention of medical ethics… for health personnel, particularly physicians, to engage, actively or passively, in acts which constitute participation in, complicity in, incitement to or attempts to commit torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment…”.
- The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 1984 and entered into force on 26 June,1987.
- The European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was adopted by the Council of Europe on 26 June 1987 and entered into force on 1 February 1989.
- The WMA Declaration of Hamburg, adopted by the World Medical Association in November 1997 during the 49th General Assembly, and reaffirmed with minor revision by the 207th WMA Council session, Chicago, United States, October 2017 calling on physicians to protest individually against ill-treatment and on national and international medical organizations to support physicians in such actions.
- The Istanbul Protocol (Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 4 December 2000.
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the United Nations on 20 November 1989 and entered into force on 2 September 1990.
- The World Medical Association Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers, adopted by the 43rd World Medical Assembly Malta, November 1991and amended by the WMA General Assembly, Pilanesberg, South Africa, October 2006, and revised by the 68th WMA General Assembly, Chicago, United States, October 2017.
(2) Istanbul Protocol, paragraph 69: “In some cases, two ethical obligations are in conflict. International codes and ethical principles require the reporting of information concerning torture or maltreatment to a responsible body. In some jurisdictions, this is also a legal requirement. In some cases, however, patients may refuse to give consent to being examined for such purposes or to having the information gained from examination disclosed to others. They may be fearful of the risks of reprisals for themselves or their families. In such situations, health professionals have dual responsibilities: to the patient and to society at large, which has an interest in ensuring that justice is done and perpetrators of abuse are brought to justice. The fundamental principle of avoiding harm must feature prominently in consideration of such dilemmas. Health professionals should seek solutions that promote justice without breaking the individual’s right to confidentiality. Advice should be sought from reliable agencies; in some cases, this may be the national medical association or non-governmental agencies. Alternatively, with supportive encouragement, some reluctant patients may agree to disclosure within agreed parameters.”