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Study uncovers serious shortcoming in holding Israel to account for torture

June 18, 2021 at 3:16 pm

Israeli police arrest a Palestinian man in Jerusalem on 26 May 2021 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

A study of the Israeli Medical Association’s (IMA) complicity in the practice of torture in the occupation state has uncovered serious shortcomings within the World Medical Association (WMA). After over a decade of failing to hold the IMA to account over its alleged breach of medical ethics, Dr Derek Summerfield of King’s College London has accused the WMA of “partisan violation of its mandate to be the official international watchdog on the ethical behaviour of doctors.”

Summerfield has presented an account of a 12-year campaign, initiated in 2009 by 725 doctors, including 115 professors from 43 countries, urging the WMA to take action over the IMA’s alleged complicity in torture by Israeli security forces. His account has been published in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Summerfield concluded that the international regulatory code for doctors on the issue of torture is “largely window dressing”.

The WMA is mandated to ensure that its member associations do not breach WMA codes such as those related to torture. The group of doctors involved asked the council of the world body to investigate the IMA’s ethical track record in the light of the evidence, and thus to review the probity of the recent appointment of IMA President Yoram Blachar as president of the WMA.

Describing the campaign’s objective, Summerfield, a senior lecturer at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, said that it was a “litmus test” of whether international medical codes regarding doctors and torture matter, and whether they are applied rigorously and even-handedly. “Our findings in the case of Israel suggest that this is not true, and that impunity largely operates,” he explained.

Exposing Israel’s use of torture and the IMA’s complicity within the system, Summerfield cites several reports by the UN and major human rights organisations from around the world, including Amnesty International and B’Tselem. He also cites a report based on testimonies and evidence from the files of over 100 torture victims. This states that there is an “institutionalised pattern of active or passive involvement by doctors in torture in Israel.” Not one doctor is said to have spoken out and sought to protect the victim.

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Among the catalogue of failures by Israeli doctors cited in the report are: medical professionals abandoning their duty by failing to document and report torture; passing on medical information to interrogators; returning victims to the custody of their interrogators even when in danger of being exposed to further torture or ill-treatment; and, in extreme cases, taking an active part in the interrogation itself.

Summerfield’s account also exposed the many personal attacks he has endured. “We were aware that campaigning about human rights issues in Israel–Palestine is qualitatively different from human rights work elsewhere,” he pointed out. “Publications deemed critical of Israel often evoke vitriolic and ad hominem attacks on writer and medical journal — though little engagement with the cited evidence base. There are calls for journal editors to be disciplined or dismissed.”

Following the launch of the initial campaign in 2009, several further appeals were made to the WMA to look at the evidence and to make a determination about the IMA’s complicity in torture. However, the world body has not acted. “If such weight of incriminating evidence, using the case of Israel as example, does not make a difference at the WMA or elsewhere, no evidence ever would.”

Calling for an overhaul of the world body, Dr Summerfield concluded: “The WMA acts in partisan violation of its mandate when it acts at all, and does not appear accountable. We endorse public calls for its reform. The WMA has spoken out about states like Iran or Bahrain but would not act against Israel or, it seems, other powerful Western states. Political power trumps ethics.”