International Human Rights and Comparative Mental Disability Law: The Role of Institutional Psychiatry in the Suppression of Political Dissent
Michael L. Perlin
New York Law School
March 3, 2006
NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05/06-15
For many years, institutional psychiatry was a major tool in the suppression of political dissent. Moreover, it appears painfully clear that, while the worst excesses of the past have mostly disappeared, the problem is not limited to the pages of history. What is more, the revelations of the worst of these abuses (and the concomitant rectification of many of them) may, paradoxically, have created the false illusion that all the major problems attendant to questions of institutional treatment and conditions in these nations have been solved. This is decidedly not so.
Remarkably, the issue of the human rights of persons with mental disabilities had been ignored for decades by the international agencies vested with the protection of human rights on a global scale. Within the legal literature, it appears that the first time disability rights were conceptualized as a human rights issue was as recently as 1993 when, in a groundbreaking article, Eric Rosenthal and Leonard Rubenstein first applied international human rights principles to the institutionalization of people with mental disabilities.
For people with mental disabilities, in particular, the development of human rights protections may be even more significant than for people with other disabilities. Like people with other disabilities, people with mental disabilities face degradation, stigmatization, and discrimination throughout the world today. But unlike people with other disabilities, many people with mental disabilities are routinely confined, against their will, in institutions, and deprived of their freedom, dignity, and basic human rights. People with mental disabilities who are fortunate enough to live outside of institutions often remain imprisoned by the social isolation they experience, often from their own families. They are not included in educational programs, and they face attitudinal barriers to employment because they have not received the education and training needed to obtain employment or because of discrimination based on unsubstantiated fears and prejudice. Only recently have disability discrimination laws and policies in the United States and elsewhere focused on changing such attitudes and promoting the integration of people with disabilities into our schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
The question remains, however: to what extent has institutional, state-sponsored psychiatry been used as a tool of political suppression, and what are the implications of this pattern and practice? In Part I of this article, I discuss the first revelations of the dehumanization inflicted on persons with mental disabilities, primarily (but not exclusively) in Soviet Bloc nations. In Part II, I discuss developments after these revelations were publicized. In Part III, I weigh the extent to which the post-revelation reforms have been effective and meaningful. In Part IV, I explain the meanings of sanism and pretextuality, and discuss how they relate to the topic at hand. Then, in Part V, I raise questions that have not yet been answered, and that, I believe, should help set the research agendas of those thinking about these important issues.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 32
Keywords: international human rights, mental disability law, political use of psychiatry, sanism, pretextuality
Date posted: March 4, 2006