The force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners in Guantanamo prison amounts to politically sanctioned torture by the US government, and breaches established international medical ethics treaties.

The prisoner hunger strike is action of last resort.

It is political in that its aim is usually to draw attention to the injustices of unlimited detention without trial, of torture, oppressive prison conditions and a general lack of access to judicial safeguards.

Palestinian prisoners starve themselves to focus the world’s attention on sixty five years of illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. It is called the War of Hungry Stomachs.

In Guantanamo the current hunger strike by 100 of the 166 prisoners has been attributed to a number of triggers - cell searches; ill treatment of the Qur’an by prison guards; utter desperation at being locked up for years with out charge or trial; being held despite approved release or transfer; and, a belief that President Obama never really intends to close the prison as he promised five years ago.

My extensive research into the Palestinian prisoner hunger strikes of last year in particular establishes that these prisoners did not want to die but they were willing to die in their demand for the dignity of justice.  

In a letter from his hospital bed, Khader Adnan who was one of the first to stop taking food, cited the daily extremes of the occupation - the humiliations, beatings, senseless harassment and deprivation of the simplest human rights as his tipping point.

Thaer Halahleh, after 77 days without food and convinced he was soon to die, apologised to his two year old daughter for the occupation having taken him away from her, and explained how she will grow up to know of the injustice of an occupation that has put hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in prisons “shattering their lives and future for no crime but their pursuit of freedom, dignity and independence”.

Of course some Palestinians are in prison for actual crimes, including acts of terrorism, but that is not the point here.

Here we are dealing with the well established political binary of repression-resistance.

Perhaps some of the men languishing in Guantanamo are guilty of crimes, but those who have not yet been tried - in Israel, Guantanamo or wherever - must be presumed innocent.

For some they can no longer wait for justice. Would you after more than eleven years in that hell hole without charge or trial?

And so they embark on the only significant form of resistance left for them.

The power of self-starvation as non-violent resistance lies in it empowering the hunger striker to control the form and timing of his or her own death.

The symbolic political meaning is that the control is taken from the oppressor/prison and  therefore determining one’s own death is established as resistance. 

That is why it is so potent.

That is why governments which preach justice but deny it when it suits, are so terrified of prison hunger strikers.

That is why the United States is further disgracing itself by force feeding a number of the Guantanamo hunger strikers.

Shoving them into a prison that is conveniently out of sight and out of mind of Americans, including and elected Senate and House, is disgrace enough.

Now by bringing in medical reinforcements in order to strap these men down and force feed them with tubes inserted up their noses and down into their stomachs is an extraordinary breach of medical ethics.

Both the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo (1975) and its updated Malta Declarations (1991 and 2006) make it clear that when a person is capable of making an unimpaired and rational judgement about the consequences of their refusal of nourishment, then force feeding breaches medical ethical principals. The force feeding which involves coercion and constraint of the prisoner amounts to torture.

The reason the international medical community drew up these declarations was to avoid repetition of the hideous violations of medical ethics carried out by Nazi doctors during WW II.

The Pentagon is hiding behind an excuse that the Gitmo prisoners are attempting suicide and it is their duty to protect prisoners from harming themselves.

That is both seriously disingenuous and seriously stupid. It is definitely politically expedient.

The American Medical Association has gone on the offensive expressing its opposition to the force-feeding, clarifying for Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that the AMA is in line with international medical ethics treaties which prohibit the practice when a competent person has made a conscious decision to refuse food.

We all know what this is really about.

The United States government fears one or more of the Gitmo detainees will die.

They haven’t worried so much in the past when suspects they renditioned to the likes of the Mubarak-era Egyptian torture chambers never emerged because hardly anyone knew about those prisoners.

There are however a number of lawyers, prisoners’ rights organisations and other humanitarian operations keeping a close watch on Gitmo.

If doctors and other medical personnel are force-feeding prisoners it is to be hoped the AMA acts against any of its own members complicit in this politically sanctioned torture. Given they are probably military, they will resort to saying they were just following orders. Not good enough.

It is also to be hoped that President Obama comes up with a plan by which he can (this time) circumvent congressional refusal to close Guantanamo prison.

The fact that Congress, and I suspect a fair few others, can’t understand how much Gitmo is a catalyst for anti-American sentiment, and therefore a recruitment tool for extremists throughout the Middle East is, quite frankly, frightening.

Possibly not as frightening as the fuse that will be lit if a detainee dies while waiting for a court date - or even a charge to be laid.


Comments (1)

by George Hendry on May 05, 2013
George Hendry

Thanks Jane - thorough.

I guess the best we can hope for is that some of the next few deaths get noticed more than the previous ones. The internet gets the news out faster and wider, more than ever before people know things are wrong, but we've gone global and never had to handle the virus before.

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