Obama's Force-Feeding of Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikers Violates the Torture Convention

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Common Dreams

Obama's Force-Feeding of Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikers Violates the Torture Convention

The holy month of Ramadan began on July 8. At Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Delta, Muslim detainees on hunger strike, many of which have been cleared for release, continue to be force-fed against their will. Some of the hunger strikers have been wrongfully and illegally detained for more than 11 years. Meanwhile, we continue to delude ourselves into believing that all detainees at Guantanamo Bay must be guilty of something and, therefore, not worthy of our compassion and empathy.

Those who wish to exploit the United States’ hypocrisy of criticizing human rights violations and demanding accountability abroad can add the force-feeding of hunger strikers to their dossier, which already includes the sanctions on Iraq that led to the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children, the use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, our continued support for authoritarian regimes, and drone attacks that kill far more innocent people than we are willing to admit.

"Our humanity in the United States allows us to wrongfully and illegally detain individuals, clear them for release because they have done nothing wrong, continue to hold them despite being cleared for release, and force-feed them for protesting their indefinite detention..."

According to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the continued indefinite detention of individuals and the “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.”

Currently, there are 166 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Of that 166, 86 have been cleared for release. Despite aggressive efforts by the Obama administration to break the hunger strike, it still counts 70 detainees on hunger strike, with 46 of those designated for force-feeding. Instead of the real change they are demanding, the hunger-striking detainees are being force-fed, an unequivocal violation of international human rights law.

Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states, “Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article 1, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

The Torture Convention’s applicability to the force-feeding of Guantanamo prisoners was recently confirmed by Judge Gladys Kessler. Kessler was presented with an emergency suit aimed at stopping the force-feeding. According to Kessler, “It is perfectly clear from the statements of detainees, as well as the statements from the organizations just cited, that force-feeding is a painful, humiliating, and degrading process.”

At Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on closing Guantanamo Bay, retired Brigadier General Stephen N. Xenakis, M.D. explicitly stated that the force-feeding of detainees violated medical ethics, our international legal obligations, and amounted to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Kessler ultimately rejected the suit on jurisdictional grounds, stating that, under the Constitution, President Obama, as Commander-in-Chief, “has the authority–and power–to directly address the issue of force-feeding of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.”

President Obama defended this violation of international law during his recent national security speech. Stopping his speech to respond to a question posed by Medea Benjamin, President Obama stated, “Well, I don’t — I don’t want these individuals to die. Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can.”

Implicit in President Obama’s response is that there are only two options, let them starve themselves to death or force-feed them through the cruelest and most inhumane way. There is one clear solution to this standoff that was somehow overlooked; the immediate release of those prisoners who have been cleared.

President Obama took what might appear to be a step forward when he stated his intention to lift his own self-imposed moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen. Yet, he only committed to reviewing detainee files on a case-by-case basis. There is a reason why 86 of the prisoners have been cleared for release. Their files have already been reviewed, in some cases multiple times. To once again review detainee files while their human rights are being severely violated on multiple levels is unacceptable.

Ahead of Ramadan, four detainees filed a petition aimed at preventing force-feeding. In response, the Obama administration promised that detainees will only be force-fed "before dusk and after sunset in order to accommodate their religious practices, absent any unforeseen emergency or operational issues.”

Such a statement does not reassure for two reasons. First, “unforeseen emergency or operational issues” will be determined by the same officials responsible for the force-feeding policy and its implementation. Second, and more importantly, it completely misses the point. To think that force-feeding detainees during the holy month of Ramadan is acceptable because the force-feeding will occur during the times of day when voluntary feeding is permitted demonstrates callous cultural indifference.

The Obama administration also claimed that feedings "have been performed in a humane fashion, with concern for petitioners' well-being, and never in a manner designed to inflict pain or discomfort, or as punishment or retaliation.” Interestingly, this claim was followed by a description of the chairs used to restrain the detainees while they are being force-fed.

Is there even such a thing as humane force-feeding when it is done against the individual’s will while strapped to a chair? Apparently, the Obama administration’s answer is ‘yes’ when the chairs are “ergonomically designed for the detainees' comfort and protection, with a padded seat and padded back support." I know what I’m getting next time I need some new furniture.

Our humanity in the United States allows us to wrongfully and illegally detain individuals, clear them for release because they have done nothing wrong, continue to hold them despite being cleared for release, and force-feed them for protesting their indefinite detention, but, by golly, we draw the line at force-feeding detainees during the daylight hours of Ramadan. Truly, as President Obama stated on the 4th of July, we are a beacon of hope.

Jeffrey Bachman

Jeff Bachman is a professor of human rights at American University in Washington, with a focus in state responsibility for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_bachman

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