Picture Credit Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

Nora Sveaass[0]

“Reviewing what may be considered as some of the basic ambitions, developments and focus areas in psychology, including ethical platforms for psychologists, we see that the obligations entailed in the international human rights conventions and declarations not only converge with what psychologists do and engage in, but also offer meaningful, ethical guidance for our profession”. (Sveaass & Wessells, 2020 [1]).

In our daily life as psychologists, we encounter a wide variety of experiences, events, problems and challenges. Many of us are directly in contact with persons deprived of their liberty in settings such as prisons or closed migration camps, or in hospital settings, including with treatment given without consent of the patient, forced medication or mechanical restraints. Many of us work with families, and in this context we frequently encounter family violence, sexual violence against children or forms of serious neglect. We may have contact with shelters where women who have experienced threats and violence will seek protection and many will also ask for therapy and support. When working with young persons we are exposed to an array of complicated situations, from migrants who have been victims of trafficking, to youngsters exposed to violence, involved in crime, exposed to discrimination or suffering with substance abuse etc. Many psychologists work with refugees in different settings, meeting persons subjected to torture and other forms of degrading treatment prior to their flight, or as part of what they have experienced under way to seek protection. Their rights that forced migrants have in the new country are important to be aware of and psychologists often find themselves in situations of advocacy as well as more traditional service providers.

When we listen to the human rights dialogues and the international efforts to monitor States’ compliance to their obligations under international law, such as  in the UN system through the Human Rights Counsel and the reviews by the Treaty Bodies (the UN Committees), we can easily be surprised at the kind questions brought to the different governments as part of these monitoring exercises. The questions posed may be about the rights of immigrant women to work and equality, steps taken to prevent and investigate violence against women and children, in homes as well as in institutions. The rights of tortured refugees and others victims of torture to rehabilitation and justice are frequently raised, as well as the way in which persons with disabilities are treated in the health care system. Health authorities are asked about the availability for community health care services and accessibility to all for mental health services. Furthermore States are asked whether there are good monitoring systems in place, in hospitals, in prisons, in police stations etc. And they very often are asked about the prison system, the rights of prisoners to health, education, activity etc in addition of course to the legal safeguards. Of particular interest is the way the prison authorities ensure that the prison services are fully implementing the UN prison rules, now known as Mandala rules, where the basic rights are described, including limitations to isolation, right to health services, contact with family etc.

When looking into the systems set out to ensure that the human rights are respected by the states in the way that these are outlined in the conventions and treaties that States have ratified, and thereby are legally obliged to follow, it seems quite easy to conclude that we as psychologists have a lot to offer to this work. So, how can we do this and how can we contribute to these processes?

Having experience both as a clinical psychologist and as a member of two different committees or treaty bodies in the UN system, I have been struck by the close relationship between these two areas, namely human rights monitoring and psychological practice. And I have often thought about how the actual implementation of human rights finds itself within the remits of our work. It Because it is where we are working as professional psychologists, that many of the requirements and obligations are to be fulfilled, including protection, prevention, care and compensation. At the same time we as psychologists can risk being part of a violating system, either because of negligence, lack of information, or because “it has always been like this”. In particular in relation to our work with persons with disabilities, or with persons belonging to different minority groups risking discrimination or marginalization, the lines between good and bad practice may be very thin, and sometimes overstepped, even unintentionally. But lack of due diligence, failure to see and react, may be considered violations of human rights obligations. So back to the question – where are we in this system and how can we take part and contribute using our professional background and ethics principles’ driving sources? The following are examples of important contact points and resources in practical human rights work and monitoring.

Most States have established Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), being independent institutions promoting and protecting human rights in the country. They are informed about the recommendations from the international mechanisms, in the UN as well as regionally and have important roles in ensuring that these recommendations in fact are being followed up and implemented. Being informed about their work, and also providing information to the NHRI may be good things to do[2].

States that have ratified the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) are obliged to establish a national visiting body within one year after ratification. These are called National Preventive Mechanisms[3] and consist of a multidisciplinary team with the mandate to visit and interview persons deprived of their liberty. Based on visits, and the information gathered, the NPMs write reports to the States,  recommending necessary changes. Psychologists are often and should be, part of such teams, as good interviewing skills and a professional eye for what constitute good services in such settings are very important.

States are regularly reviewed by the different UN bodies as mentioned above. As part of  the socalled periodic reviewing (Treaty Bodies) and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)(Human Rights Council), information is gathered, including from civil society organizations. These reports are called “alternative reports” as they are not part of the government system as such, but represent extremely important input to those whose role it is to look into State compliance at a global level. And here there are a lot of opportunities for us to participate and contribute to such reports.[4]

Some Psychological Associations have established Human Rights Committees. In Norway this work started in 1998 and as a committee we have been able to participate and contribute to many of the alternative reports submitted to the human rights mechanisms in connection with the reviewing of Norway.[5]

On the regional level, the Council of Europe [6]has established a committee for the prevention of torture, namely the CPT, regularly visiting all membercountries in Europe. This European body consists also of health professionals, and they often speak to local professionals during their regular visits. And this is also connected to places of detention, and the information we can provide to such a body, be it in relation to hospitals, institutions, old-age homes, migrant centres or prisons, is very valuable.

Finally, as professionals we constitute important voices in society, and being informed about human rights as such, and keeping up with the information provided by the important institutions referred to, and in particular to the recommendations and concerned voiced by the treaty bodies etc., we should challenge ourselves to be active and let our professional voices be heard, in media, and in different public settings – all in the interest of ensuring that the persons we work with are able to fully enjoy the human rights that they are entitled to.


[0] Professor emeritus at University of Oslo, specialist in clinical psychology, member of Human Rights Committee of the Norwegian Psychological Association, member of UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) from 2006-2013, now member of UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT).

[1] Hagenaars, P., Wainwright, T., Wagner, U., Plavšić, M. & Sveaass, N. (eds.). Human Rights Education for Psychologists (pp. 207-221). London: Routlegde

[2] National Human Rights Institutions: History, Principles, Roles and Responsibilities – World | ReliefWeb

[3] OHCHR | National Preventive Mechanisms; https://reliefweb.int/report/world/national-human-rights-institutions-history-principles-roles-and-responsibilities

[4] OHCHR | Home

[5] Sveaass, N. (2019). The Human Rights Committee at the Norwegian Psychological Association – 20 years of work and future challenges. Article about the committee. sveaass+european+journal+version+january+19.pdf (uio.no)

Suggested readings

Hagenaars, P., Wainwright, T., Wagner, U., Plavšić, M. & Sveaass, N. (eds.) (2020). Human Rights Education for Psychologists (pp. 207-221). London: Routledge.

Rubin, N.S. & Flores, R.L.  (eds.)(2020). Psychology and Human Rights. Cambridge University Press.

Hagenaars, P. (2016). Towards a Human Rights Based and Oriented Psychology. Psychology and Developing Societies. https://doi.org/10.1177/0971333616657170

Sveaass, N., Gaer, F. & Grossman, C.  (2020). Rehabilitation in Article 14 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In Sir M. D. Evans and J. Modvig (eds.), Research Handbook on Torture. Legal and Medical Perspectives on Prohibition and Prevention. Research Handbooks in Human Rights series.

Sveaass, N. (2013). Gross human rights violations and reparation under international law: approaching rehabilitation as a form of reparation. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. ISSN 2000-8066. 4 (17191) http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.17191

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