To feed or not to feed

Force-feeding procedure for Guantanamo Bay detainees exposed to the public

On Sunday, July 21, a Google search for “Mos Def force-feeding” yielded 10.6 million results. Such has been the global impact of a recent video released by Reprieve, a UK-based non-profit that advocates for the rule of law and the rights of prisoners.

In the video, Yasiin Bey, the musician and actor formerly known as Mos Def, voluntarily undergoes a force-feeding procedure similar to that conducted on some hunger-striking prisoners of Guantanamo Bay.

At the peak of the hunger strike, 106 inmates were reported to be voluntarily forgoing food, while recent numbers are said to have dwindled down to about 96. Of those 96, 45 are being force-fed via nasogastric tube.

Donald Campbell, interim head of communications at Reprieve, spoke to the Manitoban about the organization’s motivation for producing the video.

“The video is important because it helps to bring home to people the inhumane way Guantanamo detainees are being treated – despite the fact that all they are doing is undertaking a peaceful protest against their indefinite detention without charge or trial,” said Campbell.

“Not only have the vast majority of detainees in Guantanamo never been charged, let alone given a trial – more than half of them have actually been cleared for release by the U.S. Government itself.”

In May, even before Bey’s video appeared online ,the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera obtained and released a document entitled “Standard Operating Procedure: Medical Management of Detainees on Hunger Strike.”

The 30-page manual contained detailed instructions pertaining to the involuntary feeding of liquid nutritional supplements to prisoners. Also addressed in the document are appropriate methods for restraining the prisoner, and post-feeding observation protocols intended to prevent induced vomiting.

Al Jazeera’s release of the document, as well as Bey’s video, has raised ethical and legal questions as to whether saving lives by force-feeding should trump the right of prisoners to refuse nourishment.

According to the Tokyo Declaration, a collection of international guidelines for physicians implemented in 1975 by the World Medical Association “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.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has said that he approves of force-feeding because he wants to prevent the deaths of prisoners.

Arthur Schafer, director of the University of Manitoba’s centre for professional and applied ethics, said in correspondence with the Manitoban that force-feeding of political or security prisoners clearly violates international principles.

“Of course, the avoidable death of any human being is deeply regrettable; but the overriding principle, when we are dealing with prisoners who are capable of understanding the significance of their refusal to take food, is the prisoners’ right to autonomy,” said Schafer.

“To force-feed a competent adult against his or her wish is to commit a criminal assault against that person.”

Schafer suggests that persuasion and negotiation would be more humane and effective than overtly coercive means.

Asked about President Obama’s support for the forced-feeding, he said: “If President Obama is genuinely concerned to save the lives of these detainees, then he ought to negotiate directly with them and accommodate their reasonable demands.”

“Indefinite detention without trial and cruel and degrading treatment are a dark stain on America’s reputation as a nation that claims to respect the rule of law. These practices are morally intolerable and should be ended immediately, regardless of the hunger strike.”