Human Rights and Psychology

As part of the European Semester, the FSP invited delegates from the EFPA to visit the United Nations in Geneva.

Joël Frei

Delegates from the European Federation of Psycholgists’ Associations (EFPA) met representatives of the Swiss Federation of Psychologists (FSP) in Geneva in mid-March. The European psychologists together visited three United Nations (UN) organisations. Switzerland, represented by the FSP, is the host country for the European Semester for the first half of 2017.

Human rights topics were in the spotlight of the meeting at the UN. Members of the Swiss Federation of Psychologists interested in these universal and inalienable rights were able to network with delegates from the EFPA’s Board on Human Rights and familiarise themselves with the valuable tools that psychologists can use to implement and promote international agreements on human rights. Alongside the visit to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the highlight of the day was a meeting with specialists from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Dutch health psychologist, Polli Hagenaars, who chairs the Board on Human Rights, outlined the role of psychologists who are responsible for dealing with marginalised and vulnerable groups whose rights need to be protected. She summed up the meetings as follows: “It was good to see that we have much in common: the passion for our profession, the commitment to the well-being of our clients, and in the broader sense, to humanity.” 

Defending human rights together

The FSP psychologists who took part in the meeting were also able to draw positive conclusions at the end of the day in Geneva. Psychotherapist Corinne Walliser from Bern, emphasised that: “Defending human rights means becoming active.” It involves promoting this political work through networks with others, as we cannot manage on our own. Psychotherapy with torture victims in particular is very challenging. It is therefore very useful to strengthen the means of exchange and allocate to several people the tasks that go beyond the work of the psychologist. “The calls to respect human rights should in addition be aimed at the right places in order to better protect the people concerned.”

Iris Luykx, psychotherapist from Aargau, says that: “Psychology should serve all people in a positive sense. I became a psychologist based on the same ethical motives from which human rights arose.” Psychology and human rights go hand in hand and cannot be separated from each other. “If for example someone has no roof over their head and their security is no longer guaranteed, it’s difficult to initiate a healing and growth process.” 

Displaced persons and psychotherapy

In Switzerland, mainly refugees are affected by human rights abuses. “Psychology should help us find out how people from other cultural backgrounds think”, believes Corinne Walliser. A good psychotherapist should fully take into consideration the kind of thinking of others , whether expressed verbally or non-verbally. “As psychologists we’re well-trained for this and have the opportunities to build bridges for displaced people.”

According to both the psychotherapists, such bridges connecting people from different cultural horizons can foster empathy, presence and loyalty. These three interpersonal phenomena are central in treating displaced people suffering from trauma. According to Iris Luykx: “Trauma always implies a lack of relationship. Trauma caused by humans generally triggers a deep sense of powerlessness, loneliness and loss. This is partly because the relationship with oneself and one’s strengths is no longer possible, and because through the trauma, confidence in others diminishes, which in turn affects their relationships with the outside world.”

Corinne Walliser too is familiar with the challenges confronting psychotherapists who treat refugees. “During therapy, silence can create bonds. By maintaining eye contact we make ourselves present, and by our gestures we create openness.”

Both the psychotherapists agree that it is hard to provide therapy to traumatised refugees. Iris Luykx: “Even with the best trauma therapy methods, we of course can’t solve all the problems, especially when there are language barriers in place. But I think that when we as psychotherapists make the effort to work on our own inner sense of security and presence, and show a respectful attitude, this will be sensed and shown non-verbally by people in need. This gives them security and confidence, and allows their capacity to build relationships develop again.” 


First published in Psychoscope 3/2017, pp.28-29.