Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters Doctors and torture

Special Rapporteur’s reply to Summerfield

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 09 July 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g4382
  1. Juan E Méndez, special rapporteur on the question of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment1
  1. 1Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
  1. registry{at}

In March 2013, I communicated a response, via the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with regard to the allegations brought to the attention of my mandate by Dr Summerfield.1 These and additional allegations provided were not taken up because they referred to the conduct of the Israeli Medical Association (IMA) and the World Medical Association (WMA), entities that are civil society organisations. My mandate is responsible for addressing state responsibility for torture and indeed, on several occasions, I have held the State of Israel responsible where appropriate, specifically when state agents (including doctors) have been determined by me to have been complicit in torture.2

The IMA’s decision not to comment on policies of its government may well be a breach of medical ethics if the result is to cover up torture. But that does not turn its leaders into state agents for purposes of the definition of torture or for purposes of my mandate.

I take this opportunity to restate that my mandate does not extend to relations between professional organisations and parts of their membership—for example, a campaign to seek action by the WMA to expel the IMA.

In my capacity as Special Rapporteur, I have dealt with medical complicity amounting to torture in a variety of situations, including in Israel. My 2013 thematic report to the Human Rights Council focused on torture in the healthcare context in which I noted that “a State’s obligation to prevent torture applies not only to public officials, such as law enforcement agents, but also to doctors, health-care professionals and social workers, including those working in private hospitals, other institutions and detention centres.”3

Last month, in a joint press statement with the Special Rapporteur on health, I urged the parliament of Israel not to amend the Prisons Act to authorise the force-feeding and medical treatment of prisoners on hunger strike against their will and referred to the ethical obligations of medical professionals.4


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g4382