Some thoughts on GTMO hunger strike strategy

A friend of mine recently wrote me to about the hunger strikes taking place at Guantanamo. He made a very interesting comparison between the hunger striking  strategy employed by the Guantanamo detainees and those used by Irish separatists jailed by the British. He noted that the Irish were unsuccessful in their efforts to gain concessions from the British until they struck upon the strategy of a serial hunger strike. One detainee would stop eating, eventually starving himself to death, only to have his hunger strike taken up by another. This sustainable tactic created a relentless tension that eventually caused the British to cave.

Conversely, the Guantanamo detainees have typically used parallel hunger strikes. The resulting large number of hunger strikers is generally assumed to be an attempt to garner media attention. My friend is definitely correct in his assessment that this is not a sustainable tactic, which he took to mean that the Irish strategy would be more effective. However, as I pointed out to him, there is a key difference between the two cases: in Guantanamo, detainees are not allowed to starve themselves to death, only into infirmity. Once their bodyweight drops too much, they get a tube up the nose and food down their gullet. From which I concluded that media attention the sheer number of hunger strikers was the only effective civil disobedience strategy available to Guantanamo detainees.

However, it has since occurred to me that another strategy may be at play here. By increasing the number of hunger strikers, the detainees increase the workload on the medical personnel conducting their forced feeding. As has recently been reported, the situation has gotten to the point where they are having to conduct forced feeding around the clock in order to keep up. If the detainees are able to continue to grow this hunger strike much more, and sustain it just long enough, they may be able to completely overwhelm the guard force medics. If this happens, we could see several deaths in relatively short succession.

The media coverage of such an eventuality would be substantial, the political left would be mobilized, and pressure to finally close the prison would mount.

Or… maybe they’re just pissed off.

In either event, such as strategy will not work. In response to the increased hunger striking by the Guantanamo detainees, the US Navy has sent an additional 40 medical personnel to support the over-burdened force-feeding operations. This capacity and willingness to scale the response to hunger strikes will negate any high-volume strategy, at least in terms of impact on operations.

Interestingly, according to the Navy at least, the term “force feeding” may be a bit of a stretch. Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, in a statement issued on Monday, claimed that “currently only a handful of detainees are being tube-fed.” The rest of those designated for “force-feeding” are actually just isolated from their peers, sat in front of a meal, and eat voluntarily. If this is the case, then the primary driver of the hunger strike is peer pressure rather than solidarity of opposition. If that is the case, this hunger strike is just as doomed as the previous ones.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

GTMO Hunger Strikes Intensify

Over the past few weeks, news reports of Guantanamo detainees engaging in hunger strikes have intensified. As of Saturday, April 6th, US Navy Captain Robert Durand reported that 41 of the 166 detainees (or nearly 25%) had been classified as hunger strikers. Anonymous defense attorneys for GTMO detainees have been cited in several media sources as stating that the actual number of hunger strikers is much higher, with nearly 130 of 166 detainees refusing meals. The current hunger strike is estimated to have begun February 6th, with more detainees joining the original hunger strikers in recent weeks.

To officially be designated as a hunger striker, a detainee must refuse 9 consecutive meals. The health of the detainees refusing meals is closely monitored by GTMO officials, who subject the detainees to daily weigh-ins. If the detainee’s weight drops to a level officials deem dangerously low, the detainee is strapped in a chair and force fed by inserting a thick tube through his nose until he reaches an acceptable weight. At present, GTMO officials report that two detainees have been hospitalized for dehydration, and eleven (about 1/4 of the hunger strikers) are being force fed.

Hunger strikes at GTMO are not a new phenomenon. Several major hunger strikes have occurred at GTMO since the detention facility opened its doors in January, 2002; in 2002, 2003, and 2005-2006.

In a March 15th letter from 51 GTMO defense attorneys to defense secretary Chuck Hagel, the attorneys assert that this hunger strike was precipitated by the widespread searches of detainees’ Qu’rans (considered a form of religious desecration) as well as the search and seizure of detainees’ personal items like family letters, photographs, and legal mail. As detainees, hunger strikes are one of the few tactics these men have to assert their “voice” and attempt to garner attention for their grievances. Understandably, this is a significant concern for US officials, who are well-aware that many of these detainees are willing to die for their cause, and most have lost all hope of ever leaving GTMO after years of indefinite detention (in most cases, without charges against them). At present, the detainees and prison officials are at a stalemate, and it appears that the situation will only continue to worsen until the detainees’ concerns are addressed.

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research