By Dan Post
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, September 23, 2005
End Guantanamo Bay hunger strike?
The current hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba is the fourth in the past four years and the second this summer.
The first strike this summer ended when the military agreed to improve the conditions at the camp. But the prisoners continued to be mistreated.
Prisoners there have routinely been denied religious freedom, have undergone tortuous interrogation methods, and have not been charged with any crimes (only four of the 500 total prisoners at Guantanamo have ever been formally charged with anything). The desperation among prisoners reached such heights that they felt their only choice was to go back on a hunger strike.
The U.S. military is currently force-feeding at least 20 prisoners out of 200 who are on a hunger strike. The military claims that force-feeding prisoners who are on a hunger strike is its ethical obligation.
When asked about the force-feeding, Maj. Jeffrey Weir, a spokesman for the camp, responded that "no facility in the U.S., and hopefully the world, is going to let someone starve to death. We're charged with keeping them in good health, and that's what we're doing."
Despite what Weir claims, the military's motivations go far beyond prisoner health. In fact it is disingenuous for Weir to state his concern for prisoner health, especially considering the record of inhumanity at Guantanamo.
In reality, the military is concerned about the multilayered political fallout from the ongoing hunger strike. Dying hunger strikers at Guantanamo will heap an awful lot of media attention on the camp, and the mistreatment and torture seen at the prison will resound negatively in the public's eye.
Additionally, media attention on dying hunger strikers will only fan the fire between Muslim and American relations and would serve as a great recruiting tool for radical Muslims around the world.
It is only in the military's best interest to keep its prisoners alive and the media attention away. But in doing so, the military is violating clearly defined medical ethics guidelines concerning force-feeding.
The World Medical Association, the planet's leading authority on medical ethics, states in its Tokyo Declaration, "Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially."
In order to guarantee that a hunger striker is acting on his own free will, medical professionals are ethically required to inform hunger strikers of the extremely negative health consequences of their choice: In the first week, there is significant weight loss. By the second and third weeks, the liver, intestines and kidneys atrophy, and the heart deteriorates. By day 40, death is imminent.
If a prisoner still wishes to proceed with the hunger strike after being informed of this unpleasant deterioration, then the military has no ethical recourse but to allow the prisoner to go on - without any artificial feeding.
Established to protect the individual autonomy of prisoners from the abusive weight of governments and militaries, these guidelines are couched in several ethical principles.
First, force-feeding is considered to be unethical because the nature of force-feeding is dangerous, painful and tortuous. Those being force-fed are generally handcuffed, their legs restrained to a hospital bed with a nasal feeding tube forced up the nose and down the throat. The procedure is painful and in some cases has led to fatalities.
Second and most important, force-feeding is considered unethical because it infringes upon the basic medical rights of human beings to decide their own fate.
Oftentimes, and in the case at Guantanamo, prisoners feel that going on a hunger strike is the only means they have to speak for themselves, and they should have the right to make such a decision without being forced by their captors to eat.
The military is obviously not interested in ethics, nor are they truly interested in prisoner health. If they were, they would treat their prisoners under internationally agreed-upon humane standards - and the hunger strikes would never occur in the first place.
Rather, they are keeping prisoners alive through tortuous and unethical force-feeding to avoid the political fallout of prisoners dying in hunger-striking protest of the conditions of their internment at the prison camp.
Calling it their ethical obligation to keep prisoners healthy is simply a lie, as the established medical ethics show.
Dan Post is an ecology and anthropology senior. He can be reached at email@example.com.