President Obama’s recess appointment of Donald Berwick to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has sparked controversy for, among other reasons, Berwick’s connections to the Massachusetts-based advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Critics like Robert Goldberg, writing in the American Spectator, have pointed to PHR’s harsh criticisms of Israel in connection with counter-terror operations in the West Bank and Gaza. But it is not only Israel that the group has accused of serious human rights violations. It has also leveled such accusations against the United States.
Physicians for Human Rights has indeed played a pivotal role in the campaign to prosecute American officials for alleged acts of torture committed at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp and at other detention centers employed in the war on terror. In June 2008, at a time when this campaign was reaching a fever pitch, Physicians for Human Rights issued a highly publicized report titled “Broken Laws, Broken Lives” and subtitled “Medical Evidence of Torture by U.S. Personnel and Its Impact.” According to a PHR press release, Donald Berwick became a member of the organization’s board of directors just over six months earlier, in November 2007.
The PHR “Broken Laws, Broken Lives” report claims to document what it calls the “systematic use of torture by the United States.” The methodology of the report is, above all, notable for the exceptionally broad notion of “torture” employed, including non-physical “psychological torture.” An earlier PHR report is exclusively devoted to the “Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by U.S. Forces.”
The standards employed by Physicians for Human Rights in conducting its investigation derive from the so-called “Istanbul Protocol,” a set of “guidelines” for “investigating” and “documenting” torture charges that has been promoted by the European Union. Physicians for Human Rights has been one of the principal international partners in a long-term EU-funded project to foster the use of the Istanbul Protocol.
In 2003, the European Commission provided an initial grant of nearly €900,000 to fund a so-called “Istanbul Protocol Implementation Project” conducted under the auspices of the Copenhagen-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). Physicians for Human Rights was one of four international partner organizations involved in the project. European Commission data show that the EU grant accounted for nearly 80% of the total costs.
In 2005, the European Commission awarded a follow-up grant of another nearly €900,000 to the IRCT. As indicated on the IRCT website, Physicians for Human Rights remained one of four principle partner organization collaborating on the follow-up project, now known as the “Prevention through Documentation Project.” According to European Commission data, the EU grant accounted for nearly 70% of the costs of the follow-up project.
In 2008, the European Commission awarded yet another grant to the IRCT for what appears to be a continuation of the same project. The new grant totaled over €1.4 million (or over $1.8 million at current exchange rates), representing 80% of costs. The official subject of the new grant, as listed in the European Commission’s “Financial Transparency” database, is the “Use of Forensic Evidence in the Fight against Torture.” But as can be seen here, the IRCT continues to treat the project under the general heading of “prevention through documentation,” the same head under which it has collaborated with Physicians for Human Rights.
IRCT documents reflect the same exceptionally broad conception of “torture” as is on display in Physicians for Human Rights reports. For example, the IRCT website currently features an item on “Nudity as Torture Method.”
Other ongoing or recently concluded IRCT projects include an EU-funded project on “Preventing torture within the fight against terrorism.” In the context of what the IRCT describes as “the so-called ‘war on terrorism,’” the project aims to “target … local and international media” in order to increase public awareness of the alleged “torture and ill-treatment” of terror suspects. The IRCT’s partner organization in the latter project is the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). In 2007, the FIDH attempted to have torture charges brought against former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in France. (On EU-funding of FIDH, see my contemporary report here.)