on the world: a view on human rights
What does a person have to do to get noticed nowadays? In the twenty first century, enduring more than a decade of torture and arbitrary detention without charge, trial or any prospect of release is not enough. A mass hunger strike, involving the use of torturous force feeding methods, the firing of plastic bullets, and intrusive body searches, such as that currently taking place at Guantánamo Bay, entering its 100th day on Friday 17th May, might get you a little further. A life-and-death scenario is what it takes to remind the world of the injustice that is Guantánamo Bay.
The US military has yet to admit the full scale of the situation, with the current numbers reported to be on hunger strike at around 100 of the 166 remaining prisoners and over 30 reported to be force fed, including British residents Shaker Aamer and Ahmed Belbacha. This follows weeks of denial by both the US authorities and the mainstream media, only becoming newsworthy when violence entered the scene on 13 April.
The use of force to quell a hunger strike that arose on 6 February in response to the deteriorating treatment of prisoners, including the use of rubber bullets against them in January, appears to be a counterproductive method of dealing with the issue at hand. There has been no effort whatsoever to engage with or respond to the demands of the hunger strikers or to bring it to an end.
The hunger strike has undoubtedly brought Guantánamo Bay back into the public eye, even prompting Barack Obama to state “I’m going to go back at it [closing Guantánamo] because I think it’s important.” One of the triggers for the mass hunger strike was despair at his failure to keep his promise to close Guantánamo, and the prisoners’ fear that the only real way out is in a coffin.
Perhaps the latest political rhetoric is just a test to see who has been paying attention. In the past few months, Barack Obama has authorised the use of force feeding rather than end the hunger strike, and plastic bullets, which can be fatal. Furthermore, just one week before the hunger strike started, the newly re-elected president closed the office he had opened to work on closing Guantánamo.
The recent debate on Guantánamo Bay has largely recycled old, circular arguments. Congress is allegedly a sticking point, blocking progress on the closure of Guantánamo but may agree to a $200 million renovation of the prison.
The debate on force feeding hunger strikers is non-existent; medical and legal ethics do not allow it. The UN has described the practice at Guantánamo as “torture”. This has not prevented the US from force feeding hunger striking Connecticut prisoner Bill Coleman in the same manner for five years. The issue of possible recidivism in releasing cleared prisoners, a favourite of proponents of Guantánamo, is also moot; one has to have offended in order to reoffend.
Barack Obama once described Guantánamo Bay as a “misguided experiment”, except that on so many levels he knows that is not the case. A successful social experiment in peddling the politics of mistrust and fear, it is perhaps the greatest symbol of the abuse of power this century. The US keeps Guantánamo open because it is expedient, because it can, because it is a two-finger salute to the rest of the world: “screw with us, and you will be next”.
A legal monstrosity exists, yet Barack Obama has long known what he has to do to close Guantánamo. The question is not so much how, but when? Will it take further fatalities of innocent men to come closer to an answer? The situation at Guantánamo has been an emergency for far longer than 100 days. There is no place for rhetoric: there are no popularity contests or elections to be won, just lives to be saved.
If there is a debate to be had, it does not appear to be happening. The same applies to the US’ allies, such as the British government. In a backbench debate in Parliament last month on the case of British resident Shaker Aamer, the Foreign Office gave the same noncommittal answers to relevant questions by MPs it has given for years. It is highly unlikely that Mr Aamer’s case, or the hunger strike, were raised during David Cameron’s visit to Washington earlier this week, in spite of government assurances it is actively pursuing his case.
Hunger strikes are an ultimate act of desperation by those who have no other means to protest injustice. It is a reflection of the clear failure of all those who could make a difference and have not over the past 11 years. Former Guantánamo military prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis stated “A large part of [the] Obama legacy depends on how this issue breaks. It’s his choice to lead or lose.”
The hunger strike has not missed the attention of everyone, and for the past three months, campaigns such as the London Guantánamo Campaign in the UK and organisations such as Witness Against Torture and World Can’t Wait have been holding protests and solidarity actions about an emergency the world would still rather ignore. The hunger strike will enter its 100th day on 17th May and shows no sign of ending. Six prisoners have been on hunger strike and force fed for over one year; left to their own devices, they prefer death over indefinite detention. Hunger strikes can be fatal in the longer term; seven of the nine deaths at Guantánamo Bay, allegedly suicides, were prisoners who had previously taken part in hunger strikes.
To mark this 100th day milestone and given the emergency of this situation, individuals and groups from around the world have come together to organise a weekend of protest on 17-19 May, calling on people to take action and fast for 24 hours if they can. A successful petition with more than 200,000 signatures gathered in around a fortnight put together by Colonel Morris Davis will be delivered to the White House on Friday 17 May. Protests will be held in various cities and towns across the world, with at least five planned across the UK, including a demonstration outside the US Embassy in London. The hacktivist group Anonymous is also planning online actions over the weekend and others have Twitter storms planned over the three days using the hashtag #OpGTMO. Citizen actions around the world are an opportunity to show solidarity with the hunger strikers in different ways in different places. With lawyers visiting the prisoners reporting their worsening health and physical conditions, later may be too late.