Investigation and documentation of torture (study group task)

Doctors and nurses are often the first and sometimes the only people to witness the devastating effects of torture.

They play an indispensable role in its investigation and documentation. However, health services are generally not equipped in terms of experience and knowledge to deal with the often complex health needs of survivors of gross human rights violations. Health workers may feel ill equipped to cope with the enormity of the problems that survivors face. These problems frequently span a range of health and social difficulties. Examination and documentation of torture is complicated by the fact that survivors often feel ashamed to talk about what has happened to them. Equally, disclosure can in itself be experienced as retraumatizing. Sadly, failure to disclose a history of human rights violations and the associated health problems may have serious implications for an individual’s right to legal protection and their likelihood of being granted refugee status. The same is true of late disclosures, inconsistencies and omissions from claimants’ accounts.

Preparing medico-legal reports is a specialised process and some training is required. The Istanbul Protocol sets out the principles for the effective documentation of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and can be viewed online.

The Istanbul Protocol (1999) was written by expert organizations and adopted by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights as the guiding protocol on investigation and documentation. States that receive complaints about torture in their jurisdiction are required to conduct an independent investigation, bring perpetrators to court and find redress for the victims.

There are international ethical codes for health professionals that describe their roles in relation to human rights violations and torture. National medical and nursing councils also issue professional codes which their members are expected to follow. The key principle of all healthcare ethics is the fundamental duty to always act in the best interests of the patient, regardless of other constraints, pressures or contractual obligations.

Please reflect and share your opinion on the question below in the study group.

Does the professional code of the national association for your profession describe what you should do in relation to victims of torture?

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Medical Peace Work

University of Bergen

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