Since February 2013 the Department of Defense has been reporting a hunger strike at the United States Military facility Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. On April 17, 2013 the DOD reported a significant increase of participants in the hunger strike. Growing concern has been developing from multiple voices concerning the force-feeding of prisoners, not only from a hygiene perspective but also in terms of medical ethics, and the elusive notions of human dignity and inalienable human rights. The United Nations, the World Medical Association, numerous international human rights organizations, and now finally US senators have spoken up questioning and criticizing the ethics force feeding detainees participating in the ‘hunger strike.’
The UN on May 1, 2013 released a statement urging the United States government to
end the indefinite detention of persons… in accordance with due process and the principles and standards of international human rights law… and close the detention center at the Guantánamo Naval Base.
Since this has not been done, even after the numerous promises President Obama has continuously made to the American people, GITMO detainees have taken things into their own hands by engaging in a hunger strike. If it were not enough that those denied simple basic human rights to be free, and bound by barbwire and cement like a caged animal, the right to not eat in peaceable protest has been taken away from them, as well. The UN High Commissioner and the International Red Cross Committee have stated that:
the Guantánamo detainees lack of legal protection and the resulting anguish caused by the uncertainty regarding their future has led them to take the extreme step of a hunger strike to demand a real change to their situation.
The UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have further stated that the U.S. engagement of force-feeding has broken the ethical boundaries medical professionals should engage and that it is “unjustifiable to engage in forced feeding of individuals contrary to their informed and voluntary refusal of such a measure.” Those who engage in a hunger strike and have done so because of the physical and emotional torture of indefinite detention should be:
protected from all forms of coercion, even more so when this is done through force and in some cases through physical violence. Health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike. Nor is it acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike.
These proclamations made by international organizations and medical associations have not been adhered to by the U.S. Government and such violations of human rights still continue in Guantanamo Bay. The issue being brought to the table by some American leaders is the one this country has always battled. With our notions of democracy and freedom, what may we do and not do in the search for safety is brought to the front of the discussion again as Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asks, “What sets the United States apart is what we stand for — our values, the example we set. After 9/11, we saw how easily those values can be sacrificed by the very people who have a responsibility to protect them.” He further urged the American public to
ask ourselves whether force-feeding hunger striking prisoners at Guantánamo — many of whom have never been convicted of any crime and yet have no hope of release, or long periods of solitary confinement which is routinely used in our prisons — violate[s] the Convention [Against Torture], not to mention our own Constitution.
Leahy is asking the questions of the hour and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is making the demand. On June 19, 2013, Senator Feinstein wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stating that she was “concerned that these policies are out of step with international norms, medical ethics and practices of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.” During her recent visit, more than 60 percent of the 166 detainees were engaging in the hunger strike and 40 were being force-fed. In her letter she stated that the force feeding practices were “out of sync with international norms [but also] deviate significantly from U.S. Bureau of Prison practices.” Based upon these premises she asked Hagel to stop the force feedings in Guantanamo Bay. Amidst all the public outcry and now the political attention given by Senator Feinstein and Leahy, military spokespeople justify the force feedings as saving lives in the least painful way as possible, saying that “we think there are adequate safeguards in place to make it as pain-free and comfortable as possible. It’s not done to inflict pain and it’s not done as punishment. It’s done to preserve life.” In response, the medical field has spoken up. The New England Journal of Medicine announced that, “Force-feeding a competent person is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault. ” Those with a shred of decency are able to maneuver their way through the thicket and reach the reasonable conclusion that force feeding indefinite detainees is not only unethical and immoral, but also an assault on our American Constitution and all that it stands for.