Guantánamo hunger strikes: Five steps the US government must take to end the injustice

“Given the uncertainty and anxieties surrounding their prolonged and apparently indefinite detention in Guantánamo, it is scarcely surprising that people’s frustrations boil over and they resort to such desperate measures.”  High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on the latest Guantánamo hunger strikes

In a matter of weeks, the number of detainees recognized by the Guantánamo authorities as being on hunger strike increased dramatically from fourteen detainees in mid-March to one hundred by the end of April. Twenty-three hunger strikers are now being “tube fed” and four of these detainees are in hospital. A number of those being force fed are reportedly detainees approved for transfer years ago by the US authorities.  In the wake of the US Navy sending forty more medical personnel to Guantánamo to respond to the hunger strike, the American Medical Association raised concerns with US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel about the medical ethics of force feeding mentally competent hunger strikers.

Hunger strikes – and the practice of force-feeding – began in Guantánamo in 2005 and have contented periodically since then.

A backdrop of injustice

Whatever the initial trigger was for the current hunger strike, there is no escaping the backdrop to it: detainees being held year after year after year with no indication of when, if ever, they will be released or brought to trial. Distress and protest are predictable outcomes of treating detainees as if they have no human rights, essentially cut off from families and communities that are continents away, and their fate left to the whims of domestic politics with no consideration of international human rights law and principles.

As early as January 2004, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – the only outside agency with access to the Guantánamo detainees – issued a rare public statement noting that they had “observed a worrying deterioration in the psychological health of a large number of them.” In the intervening nine years, that warning has gone largely unheeded. On April 11, 2013, ICRC President Peter Maurer again went public calling on “the United States, including its Congress, [to] urgently find a way to resolve all pending humanitarian, legal and policy issues relating to the detention of persons held at Guantánamo Bay.”

International criticism of Guantánamo now also includes many of the US government’s close allies. The UK government’s 2013 human rights report stated that “the indefinite detention without trial of persons in Guantánamo Bay is unacceptable and that the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay should be closed.”

US President Obama has repeatedly promised to close down the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay and blames the US Congress for blocking the way.  Yet other options are clearly available.

Here are five steps the US government can take right now to start to address the ongoing human rights violations:

Review conditions at Guantánamo:
Pending resolution of the detentions, and without delaying that goal in any way, immediately conduct a detailed review of conditions of detention and of policies implemented in response to the hunger strike, including: evaluating cell-search, force-feeding and comfort item policies, and allowing full access to independent medical professionals, UN experts, and human rights organizations, and ensure all policies comply with international human rights law and medical ethics.

Dedicate resources, ensure leadership:
A high-level White House position should be appointed to drive forward this issue, to coordinate review of all executive options, and to liaise with and ensure pressure on Congress. There should be no more delays, and no more excuses for the USA’s failure to meet its international human rights obligations.

Expedite safe detainee transfers:
Dozens of the Guantánamo detainees have long been “approved for transfer” by the US authorities. Many are Yemeni nationals, who remain in limbo because of the moratorium on repatriation of Yemeni detainees imposed by the administration over three years ago. The administration should accept Senator Dianne Feinstein’s offer to help resolve the cases of the 86 detainees she has said were approved for transfer in the past and her call on the administration to review the repatriation moratorium.

Apply a human rights framework:
Even if the US administration meets its commitment to close the Guantánamo detention facility, it apparently intends to hold at least 46 of the detainees indefinitely without charge or trial somewhere else on the basis of its flawed “global war” framework. This is unacceptable, as is the continuing resort to military commission trials that do not meet international standards. Congress and the administration should commit to addressing the detentions under a framework that complies with international human rights law and standards, something that has been missing from the outset.

Charge and try detainees in civilian courts:
Detainees who are to be prosecuted should be charged and tried in ordinary federal civilian court, without recourse to the death penalty. Any detainees who are not to be charged and tried should be released.
Any resolution of the injustice of Guantánamo will be incomplete without full accountability for the human rights violations that have been committed against detainees, including the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance. Genuine access to meaningful remedy must be guaranteed to those who have been subjected to violations, and the use of secrecy and immunity to block accountability and remedy must be ended.

Take Action Online Call on President Obama to end indefinite detention at Guantánamo

Read Amnesty’s letter to US Secretary of Defence Charles Hagel