“The right to refuse medical interventions to provide nutrition and hydration should also be extended to prisoners as autonomous individuals.”
Drawing by political artist, Massoud Nayeri
In my personal experience, when an individual chooses to use their body as a form of protest in a hunger or treatment strike it is often as a last resort. This does not necessarily mean the person has a death wish, far from it, it is often a comment on conditions in life, an “informed choice” a bodily expression of a fight for human rights. This I believe to be the case of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay, US military prison, Cuba and therefore I strongly support the right of detainees NOT to be force fed. As a trained psychiatric nurse if I were at Guantanamo, I would exercise my right to uphold the rights of a patient and decline participation in an aggressive, painful and degrading act.
It is over 2 months now since the hunger strike began at Guantanamo and there are over 100 prisoners refusing food. It started during a search of prisoners, when their letters, legal papers and other personal items appear to have been removed and there was alleged mishandling of the Koran.
Few of the detainees have ever been charged with terrorist offences. Many have not been charged at all, like Shaker Aamer, a British resident held without trial and most have now been “cleared for release”. The men however are left to languish, with little hope, many miles from their families. President Obama who publicly stated his commitment to close down Guantanamo within a year has gone back on his promise fuelling the anger of detainees and human rights campaigners alike.
In an interview with CBS News, New York, Pardiss Kebriaei, attorney for detainee Sabry Mohammed, quoted his client’s words… ‘I don’t not want not eat, I don’t want to starve myself. I don’t want to die, I want to see my family, but I have been pushed too far.” Kebriaei believes that this describes the mental state of many of the men at Guantanamo.
When all other human rights are diminishing, the one thing left that a human being has the right to control is their own body in non-violent protest. I speak as the widow of a man who led what was viewed by some as a controversial “treatment strike” for 5 years which involved a High Court Case and was sustained until his death in 2005. My husband Peter was protesting at the violation of his human rights by the British government and American authorities and his right to safe treatment. Although we did not win our case on the grounds of cost, his right of treatment strike was fully recognized by the judge listening to his case.
My husband was not in fact a prisoner but an NHS (National Health Service ) patient, a haemophiliac (person born with a bleeding disorder) that had been injected with contaminated blood. We traced that blood via treatment batch numbers directly back to Arkansas State Penitentiary in the US.
Prisoners there at that time were held in the most appalling conditions, regularly beaten, tortured and subjected to unethical medical experimentation against the Nuremberg code. To our horror we discovered inmates had been injected with deadly viruses in human experimentation by doctors to study them for the progress of hepatitis. In return they received a reduction of their prison sentence. Their contaminated blood was then sold to US pharmaceutical companies, exported round the world as “treatment” and injected into the arms of haemophilia patients.
President Clinton’s campaign finance manager Leonard Dunn held the lucrative contracts for prison plasma so it was in the interests of then Governor Clinton to keep the dangerous programme running despite it being closed down by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) on the grounds of gross safety violations. In the UK this became known as the “worst medical treatment disaster in the history of the NHS” with 4, 500 of the 6,000 haemophiliacs contaminated with HIV and hepatitis B and C. It is also one of our government’s biggest cover ups. I believe had this scandal been investigated, that should have led to tighter controls for US prisons, ensuring the upholding of human rights for prisoners and Guantanamo may not have existed in its present form.
The act of refusal to eat is a brave one and must be upheld. Anne Gallagher director of the International Centre for Nursing Ethics, at the University of Surrey, in England, and editor of the journal Nursing Ethics, writes in the New York Times :-
Health professionals regularly make decisions about the continuation and discontinuation of treatment and they have to accept patients’ decisions to refuse treatment even if this may result in their deaths. The right to refuse medical interventions to provide nutrition and hydration should also be extended to prisoners as autonomous individuals.
We must have the utmost respect for nurses and other professionals who work ethically in military and custodial care settings and appreciate the many challenges that arise. We must also express our solidarity with those who refuse to do something that conflicts with their professional values.
Nurses who refuse to participate in force-feeding are, in my view, acting in accord with their professional values. Force-feeding is not part of nurses’ caring repertoire.
Like the Guantanamo detainees, my husband used his body as a weapon of protest refusing to be injected anymore with the “life-saving” treatment that was to end his life in 2005. There was a safer alternative synthetic treatment, recombinant to stop his bleeds but the British government refused him this on the grounds of cost despite destroying much of his life.
Unlike my husband, the Guantanamo detainees do not have their relatives by their side to protect their loved ones from the forced intrusion of a tube down the nose (or in my husbands case a needle in the arm). For days and nights I barely left my husband’s side knowing the medical staff would try to treat him when he was at his weakest, hemorrhaging internally and in severe pain but Peter was adamant it was his right NOT to be treated and I respected his wishes. There were times when I laid in front of his body to protect him from doctors advancing with a needle. They were very angry and wanted to treat him to ease their conscience as much as for his “benefit”.
Peter’s decision was for two reasons, firstly not for himself but to object to the paid donor blood system, the abuse of prisoners in Arkansas State penitentiary that had little in the way of human rights and few to highlight their plight. Secondly, to draw attention to the suffering of the haemophilia community at the hands of the British government who were covering up their own negligence in relation to blood treatment. In the words of my late husband,
My liver is going into failure and without treatment I will die. But morally I do not agree with taking plasma from paid donors and after fighting this long I will not give up.” http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/0100local/page.cfm?objectid=12635187&method=full&siteid=50081#story_continue
I firmly believe that the existence of Guantanamo will only serve to radicalize more young people against America. Yesterday the Islamic Emirate (Afghan Taliban) released a statement drawing attention to the hypocrisy of the US on human rights. They are right… when they state:-
The American officials, instead of accepting the legitimate demands of the prisoners, are trying to kill the spirit of the protesting inmates with such coercive behaviour and are retaliating to their screams for justice with brutality, all of which are actions violating all human rights and every charter enshrined in the laws of humanity.
Col. Morris Davis, the former Chief Prosecutor at Guantanamo has also spoken out and devised a petition calling for President Obama to close it down as promised. The petition is already close to reaching 100,000 signatures. America is fast becoming a laughing stock regarding upholding human rights. Col Davis states:-
I personally charged Osama Bin Laden’s driver Salim Hamdan, Australian anathema David Hicks, and Canadian teen Omar Khadr. All three were convicted … and then they were released from Guantanamo. More than 160 men who have never been charged with any offense, much less convicted of a war crime, remain at Guantanamo with no end in sight. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where not being charged with a war crime keeps you locked away indefinitely and a war crime conviction is your ticket home.
THE PETITION CAN BE SIGNED HERE http://www.change.org/CloseGTMO
I pray that action will be taken to address the concerns of detainees and human rights campaigners, that those held will NOT be force fed any longer and some resolution can be found. I am reminded of other hunger strikers, when years ago I also protested at their treatment. I end with a poem by Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands who died on the sixty sixth day of hunger strike in the H block prison hospital, Long Kesh on the 5th May 1981.
The Rhythm Of Time
There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.
It was born when time did not exist,
And it grew up out of life,
It cut down evil’s strangling vines,
Like a slashing searing knife.
It lit fires when fires were not,
And burnt the mind of man,
Tempering leandened hearts to steel,
From the time that time began.
It wept by the waters of Babylon,
And when all men were a loss,
It screeched in writhing agony,
And it hung bleeding from the Cross.
It died in Rome by lion and sword,
And in defiant cruel array,
When the deathly word was ‘Spartacus’
Along with Appian Way.
It marched with Wat the Tyler’s poor,
And frightened lord and king,
And it was emblazoned in their deathly stare,
As e’er a living thing.
It smiled in holy innocence,
Before conquistadors of old,
So meek and tame and unaware,
Of the deathly power of gold.
It burst forth through pitiful Paris streets,
And stormed the old Bastille,
And marched upon the serpent’s head,
And crushed it ‘neath its heel.
It died in blood on Buffalo Plains,
And starved by moons of rain,
Its heart was buried in Wounded Knee,
But it will come to rise again.
It screamed aloud by Kerry lakes,
As it was knelt upon the ground,
And it died in great defiance,
As they coldly shot it down.
It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.
It lies in the hearts of heroes dead,
It screams in tyrants’ eyes,
It has reached the peak of mountains high,
It comes searing ‘cross the skies.
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right! ‘
BOBBY SANDS was twenty seven years old when he died on the sixty sixth day of hunger-strike in the H-Block prison hospital, Long Kesh, on the 5th May 1981. The young IRA Volunteer who had spent almost the last nine years of his short life in prison as a result of his Irish republican activities was, by the time of his death, world-famous having been elected to the British parliament and having withstood pressures, political and moral (including an emissary from Pope John Paul II), for him to abandon his fast which was aimed at countering a criminalisation policy by the British government. His name became a household word in Ireland, and his sacrifice (as did that of those who followed him) overturned British propaganda on Ireland and had a real effect in advancing the cause of Irish freedom.
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”.