- PHR Toolkits - http://phrtoolkits.org -

Safety and Security

Clinicians should carefully consider the context in which they are working, take necessary precautions and provide safeguards accordingly. If interviewing people who are still imprisoned or in similar situations in which reprisals are possible, all precautions should be taken to ensure that they do not place the detainee in danger (or in additional difficulty). Promises must not be made, for example, to provide security for the witness or for relatives who might be at risk, unless the interviewer is certain that they can be fulfilled. Witnesses might believe that international organisations or others investigating allegations of torture have more power to protect them than is the case. It is part of the informed consent process that individuals are aware of all the issues before they agree for a clinician to make a formal report. If the risk of harm from reprisals is a virtual certainty, conducting a medical evaluation may be considered unethical even if informed consent is obtained. This may be the case in the context of documenting human rights violations in places of ongoing conflict.

Whether or not certain questions can be asked safely will vary considerably and depends on the degree to which confidentiality and security can be ensured. When necessary, questions about forbidden activities should be avoided.

If the forensic medical examination supports allegations of torture, the detainee should not be returned to the place of detention, but rather should appear before the prosecutor or judge to determine the detainee’s legal disposition (see Procedural Safeguards below).

An interviewer will make notes of the interview, and may use other recording devices. The reasons for this should be explained to the interviewee who should be reassured as to how the notes and other records will be used and asked for consent. The way in which any records of such interviews are stored can be important in protecting the security of the interviewer and the interviewee. In many countries where torture is prevalent, the police have been known to raid clinics and search or confiscate medical records. In order to protect patients, therefore, in such conditions records should have no obvious identifying information on any document inside (such as initials or date of birth), and the files themselves being numbered with a register kept in a secure place elsewhere. Patients can be given cards with the identifying number so that treatment can be continued even if the register is not available. In some circumstances it may be necessary to hold records at a different location or even in a third country to ensure their security.

If information about an individual needs to be transmitted to another body, fax transmission is generally safer than e-mail as a copy of the latter may be stored on the sending computer or held on the server of the internet service provider. In some countries the authorities routinely screen all outgoing messages.