Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Human Rights Day and the Forced-Feeding of Detainees: Is this who we are?

December 10, 2014

  Abdullah Kanneh, Demilitarization intern

Artwork by Witness Against Torture

December 10 is Human Rights Day, first proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1950. Human Rights Day is meant to remind people of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard for all peoples.

This is a day that highlights human rights violations around the world. As U.S. citizens, we look to indefinite detention of detainees by the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp since 2002, and more recently, the forced-feeding of some of those detainees.

The American Medical Association, the World Medical Association, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, have all made statements condemning the force-feeding of detainees. In a letter to the Secretary of Defense on April 25, 2013, the American Medical Association declared that the force-feeding of detainees violates “core ethical values of the medical profession.”

“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. . . Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”– President Barack Obama, May 23, 2013.

Despite this comment by President’s Obama, his administration continues to subject Guantanamo detainees to force-feeding, including forcible nasal gastric tube feeding, and also administering medications related to force-feeding, without their consent. This treatment leads to imminent health risks for the prisoners and violates their fundamental human rights.

In October, I had the opportunity to attend the first courtroom challenge to the Obama Administration’s forced-feeding of Guantanamo detainees who are on a hunger strike. The legal challenge was brought by Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s and focuses on how the feeding is being carried out.

Dhiab is a Syrian man who had been held without charge or trial at Guantanamo since 2002. He was cleared for release in 2009, but the U.S. government struggled to repatriate him because of fears about how he would be treated in Syria. On Dec 6 he and five other detainees were released to Uruguay. The president of Uruguay, José Mujica, was a political prisoner himself during the military dictatorship there.

Even with Dhiab’s release, this unprecedented trial will continue, assessing the legality of force-feeding methods used at Guantanamo Bay. The United States government requested to have it held in secret, but the request was denied by District Court Judge Gladys Kessler. What brought me to the court was the judge’s order to release a redacted video that shows Dhiab being force-fed. Dhiab has been on hunger strikes on and off for seven years.

Dhiab needs a wheel chair and back brace because of a previous injury; however, he was forced to walk to the force-feeding session without his wheel chair or back brace, according to Sondra Crosby, a Boston University medical professor who examined Dhiab. “That’s completely inappropriate and cruel, to take a wheelchair away from someone who is not able to walk,” Crosby said. “It looks like medical care is being withheld as part of disciplinary status and that should never happen.”

Attorney Eric Lewis said his client’s hunger strike is the only way he has to protest peacefully. “It’s a cry of humanity from a person who feels he has no choice left,” Lewis said. “Mr. Dhiab does not want to die, he wants to be treated like a human being,”

According to the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, “torture is a moral issue.” It is never justified, under any circumstances. In a 2007 letter to the U.S. Senate, the bishops emphasized: “A respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason.”