The campaign about doctors and torture in Israel: two years on

  • derek a summerfield, honorary senior lecturer
  • professor alan meyers

Institute of Psychiatry, London/Dept of Paediatrics, Boston University

Re: Doctors call for head of World Medical Association to quit as “matter of priority”. Kmietowicz 338:doi:10.1136/bmj.b2556

On its second anniversary we write as lead signatory and convenor of a medical ethical campaign representing 725 doctors, including 115 professors, from 43 countries. This was reported in the BMJ at the time. (1)

We appealed to the World Medical Association (WMA), the international watchdog on medical ethics, who are mandated to ensure that its members adhere to its codes, including the seminal anti-torture code for doctors, the Declaration of Tokyo. The Declaration obliges doctors to denounce and report torture whenever they encounter it. We asked the WMA to examine the record of the Israeli Medical Association (IMA), a WMA member, and thus the probity of the appointment of longstanding IMA President Yoram Blachar as WMA President. We noted the precedent set when the Medical Association of South Africa was obliged to withdraw from the WMA during the apartheid era on this issue of medical complicity. Our appeal was supported by a voluminous evidence base pointing to systematic collusion by Israeli doctors with torture, from a 1996 Amnesty International report to the 2008 Annual Report to the UN Committee of Torture by a coalition of 14 Israeli and Palestine human rights organizations. (2) (3) Over the years the IMA had rejected or ignored all appeals made directly to them to take action under the Declaration of Tokyo.

Both Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) also submitted documentation to WMA in support of our campaign. Between 2001 and 2009 PCATI had recorded 600 complaints about torture and ill-treatment inflicted on Palestinians during interrogations in Israel, with every single one dismissed perfunctorily by the authorities (4). PCATI’s ‘Ticking Bombs’ report, which we cited, carried detailed testimony of the torture of 9 Palestinian men. Doctors, several of which were named, saw the prisoners at various points before, during and after episodes of torture (which in one case caused spinal damage and disability), did not take a proper history, made no protest, and returned them to their interrogators. (5)

Over these two years the WMA has refused to even acknowledge receipt of our letters and evidence, bar vilification in the media and a libel suit threat issued by WMA President Blachar through London lawyers against the convenor (DS). Our letters were addressed to the entire WMA Council but we discovered later that bar the Council Chair, the Council was kept in the dark. In striking contrast, over these 2 years the WMA has spoken out about reports of medical ethical abuses in Iran and Bahrain. (6)

Thus we reluctantly concluded that the WMA was itself unfit, and was simply not going to act when the case was the IMA, whatever the evidence. In August last year we proceeded to submit the appeal and evidence to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, using the email address ( which his office advertises for precisely this purpose. Hearing nothing, we repeated the appeal when Nowak was succeeded as Rapporteur last November by Juan Mendez- who is the first Rapporteur to have been a torture survivor himself. Again, we have not even received acknowledgement of receipt, and we understand that the Rapporteur himself may not have been shown it by his staff. Yet a 2009 UN Human Rights Council resolution tasked the Rapporteur with paying particular attention to the question of ‘medical complicity’ with torture.

So what are we to conclude from this? The mandate of these Western- led institutions promises much, but what will they deliver for Palestinian rights? Our campaign continues, for this is an issue that goes to the heart of the moral standing of the medical profession worldwide. Until our case is addressed it remains an open reproach to the idea that the regulation of international medical ethical codes governing doctors and torture is applied equally, and that action will follow against those who flout the Declaration of Tokyo- even if they have powerful friends.


Alan Meyers, Professor

Dept of Paediatrics, Boston University USA


Derek Summerfield, honorary senior lecturer

Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London.

1. Kmietowicz Z. Doctors call for head of World Medical Association to quit as “matter of priority”. BMJ 2009;338:b2556.

2. Amnesty International. “Under constant medical supervision”, torture, ill-treatment and the health professions in Israel and the Occupied Territories. London. Amnesty International. MDE 15/37/96.

3. Defence for Children International. Palestine Section. United Against Torture (UAT) Report: Torture and ill-treatment in Israel and the OPT. 2008.

4. PCATI petitions the High Court of Justice: order the AG to investigate torture. 8 March 2010.

5. Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. “Ticking Bombs”:testimonies of torture victims in Israel. Jerusalem:PCATI, 2007.

6. Summerfield D. BMJ 2009;339:b4635. The WMA speaks out on Iran but not on Israel. Why not?

Competing interests: None declared

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Published 9 August 2011 (Facebook / 11.08.2011)

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