What is going on in Guantanamo?
With the advent of Ramadan, both international media and social networking websites have brought attention to the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who are being fed against their will. Out of the 166 detainees, more than half have been cleared for release, fifty have been deemed too dangerous to discharge yet there is insufficient evidence to try them and the remaining 30 must await their prosecution. As a desperate plea and a simultaneous attempt to maintain their dignity, around hundred detainees have gone on voluntary hunger strikes and human rights activists both within and outside the United States have called for the release, transfer or trial of the suffering inmates. Keeping in line with their past policies of coercion, the prison authorities have counteracted with an equally extreme measure, authorising health personnel to feed the protesters against their will. The process is pretty gruesome; the protester is usually tied down to the bed and fed through a neogastric tube which is additionally painful due to the frail condition of the prisoners – many have shed 30 to 40 pounds throughout the duration of the strikes.
Despite vehement criticism from important organisations such as the United Nations which has condemned the policies practiced at Guantanamo as “a flagrant violation of international human rights law [which] in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” the United States has resolved to continue force feeding the detainees during Ramadan. In court papers rejecting a petition by four detainees, the US said that the feedings provided “essential nutritional and medical care” and would not interfere with religious observances. The feeding of the detainees will be carried out “before dusk or after dusk and after sunset in order to accommodate their religious practices”, they said, “absent any unforeseen emergency or operational issues.”
The detainees offer a different perspective from the seemingly ‘accommodating’ picture sketched by the US government. According to a fresh testimony by British citizen, Shaker Aamer, the US authorities are systematically making the regime more hard-line to try to diffuse the strike. Techniques include making cells “freezing cold” to accentuate the discomfort of those of hunger strikes and the introduction of “metal-tipped” feeding tubes, which Aamer said were forced into the inmates’ stomachs twice a day and caused them to vomit over themselves. Yet these stories fail to shock an audience who has become well-versed with the cruel practices of Guantanamo that draw back to the Bush Administration. The question that is raised year after year is why the United States, a purportedly democratic, secular state continues to practice violent and dehumanising strategies in its “war against terror”. Are such practices not setting a precedence that glorifies the same attitude towards human life that the US wants to combat?
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this entire scenario is the callousness the United States government has displayed towards human life. Much like the drone strikes which are known to cause innumerable civilian causalities in an attempt to annihilate terrorists on the run, the practices carried out at Guantanamo convey the United States’ policy that the ‘end justifies the means’. A New York Times article titled the “The Moral Case for Drones” published in July 2012 highlighted a point made by Henry A Crumpton, ex-Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre: “We never said, ‘Let’s build a more humane weapon,’ we said, ‘Let’s be as precise as possible, because that’s our mission — to kill Bin Laden and the people right around him.’”
From a moral standpoint, it is of little value whether the drone programme compares favourably with similar operations and contemporary armed conflict because the ‘moral’ case for any warfare is never enough to justify civilian deaths. Keeping in mind that most of the detainees on hunger strikes are cleared for release, makes the US government’s exercise of torture against them even more unjustifiable. Although President Obama has publicly promised to work towards the closing of the base, and to allow the release of many of the 86 prisoners held there who have been cleared for transfer. However, like many of President Obama’s unfulfilled promises of change, Guantanamo stands another stain on his record and lack of political integrity.
In a national security speech held in May, the president discussed the situation of feeding hunger-striking detainees against their will. “Is that the America we want to leave our children?,” Obama asked. “Our sense of justice is stronger than that.” Obama’s acknowledgement – “it hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens co-operation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed” – only makes matters worse as it reminds us that the US government’s statements are not backed by action or any concerted effort to make a change. For them, it seems, these individuals’ lives are disposable; petty sacrifices for a noble cause. Drawing back to the idea of ‘American Exceptionalism’, capitalism and global hegemony, this policy does not seem out of line for the current administration.
At present, the promises not to force-feed the inmates during the day in Ramadan are not backed up by any guarantees. They are no more than weasel words from an administration that rides rough-shod over the fundamental right of people to choose what goes into their bodies on the eve of their independence day. As a spokesperson at reprieve put it: “There is a clear route open to President Obama in order to end this strike and help restore America’s reputation around the world: start freeing those prisoners who have been cleared for release by his own government. He could direct his Defence Secretary to do so tomorrow if he chose – the only conclusion is that he lacks the political courage to do so.”
The writer is a staff member of Pakistan Today and holds a degree from Mount Holyoke College.