Intended for healthcare professionals


Guantanamo: a call for action

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 09 March 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:560
  1. Michael Wilks, chairman, Medical Ethics Committee (
  1. British Medical Association, London WC1H 9JP

    Doctors and their professional bodies can do more than they think

    According to the British prime minister, Tony Blair, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is an “anomaly.” Set against the Western tradition of ethics and human rights, the facility most certainly is, but it is also a place where detainees have lost all legal protection, torture is rife, and doctors have abandoned their ethical responsibilities.

    The psychiatrist Robert Lifton, in studying the history and psychology of the Nazi doctors, showed how easily ethical principles were lost and replaced by acts that classified Jews, Romany gypsies, disabled people, and homosexuals as fit for the gas chamber and the medical laboratory.1 Such behaviour by doctors has been repeated (in different contexts) in the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and Chile, and now in Guantanamo Bay.

    The cultural context in Guantanamo Bay was set by two US presidential decrees. The first was to remove the protection of the Geneva Convention from “combatants” suspected to be members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.2 The second was to upwardly regrade torture, defining it as such only when the physical pain …

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