Last month, 13 Guantanamo detainees wrote an open letter requesting independent medical examinations and advice. The detainees, who are using their hunger strike as a means of communication and to gain global attention, said that they did not trust military doctors whom they accused of putting their duties to their superiors above their duties to their patients, in violation of the ethics of their profession. In response, more than 150 doctors, including some from the US, have signed an open letter to President Obama, urging the administration to allow Guantanamo detainees to receive new treatment. The letter, which was published in Lancet, stated:
“Without trust, safe and acceptable medical care of mentally competent patients is impossible. Since the detainees do not trust their military doctors, they are unlikely to comply with current medical advice. That makes it imperative for them to have access to independent medical examination and advice, as they ask, and as required by the UN and World Medical Association.”
The question is whether or not the actions taken by the Guantanamo medics are ethical. According to the World Medical Association, force-feeding hunger strikers of sound mind is never ethically acceptable. The WMA has stated: “Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading statement.” Therefore, the means by which the medical staff is keeping the detainees alive violates international law, and to some, constitutes torture. However, it is a doctor’s duty to provide life-sustaining treatment. Unlike Cruzan v. Dir. Missouri Dep’t Health which held that competent adults have the right to refuse forced feeding, even if death will result, Washington v. Harper held that prison officials could override a prisoner’s objection to forcibly being administered medication, assuming that it’s in the prisoner’s best medical interest. So what other viable treatment options do these physician’s have, given that the detainees remain on hunger strike? While the means to force feed someone are gruesome and painful, wouldn’t it be even worse if we allowed our detainees to starve themselves to death?
President Obama has stated that America should never practice torture and that Guantanamo should be closed. The only way that will happen is if we have healthy detainees, fit to either stand trial or to be sent elsewhere. If this is truly what he wants, the best place to start is by ending this hunger strike. In this case, he should start listening to his detainees and allow for independent medical examinations. The detainees’ aren’t going to stop their hunger strike, and the medical examiners aren’t going to stop force-feeding them. If no one is going to give, the President should force somebody’s hand.
Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research