Solidarity with Guantanamo hunger strikers, Part 1

From the November-December 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Solidarity with Guantanamo hunger strikers

London, England—Some found it strange that a man voluntarily stopped eating for over 20 days. I found it hard. After all, I like to eat as much as anyone else. Yet my decision to go on hunger strike in support of Guantanamo Bay prisoners had a deeper, political meaning.

I was in good company. The usually cynically unflappable Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle, had undertaken his own weeklong strike in July, having taken over from fellow striker Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the legal aid charity Reprieve.

Clive triggered off something of a hunger strike domino effect. Having utilized social networking outlets, he implored others to make similar gestures of solidarity. He was soon joined by a diverse bunch, from human rights activists such as independent writer Carol Anne Grayson, to medical professionals such as David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist at City Hospital, Birmingham, UK.

What caused these disparate individuals to undertake such drastic action? The hunger strike initiated by nearly three quarters of the 166 Guantanamo Bay inmates last March provides an answer. Denied any real opportunity to present their case to courts or media, prisoners rebelled against what they perceived as a final insult: the searching of their Korans, allegedly for safety reasons, by guards seemingly wishing to further erode detainees’ morale.

Fasting prisoners were subjected to intensely painful forced feeding methods. Yasiin Bey, perhaps better known as Mos Def, teamed up with Reprieve over the summer to expose just what was involved in the force-feeding process.

Bey, who was dressed in orange prisoner fatigues and restrained to a chair, had a meter of rubber tubing forced into his nose, down his throat into the stomach. In a video posted on the website of the UK national paper, The Guardian, Bey is seen to suffer extreme discomfort, eventually begging for the procedure to stop before breaking down in tears.

Yet why did I join with the wave of solidarity strikes, and opt for such an extreme method to demonstrate opposition to U.S. policy? It certainly isn’t because I enjoy going hungry, or that I’m seeking to gain attention; indeed, over the course of the strike and for some time after I had trouble communicating and found the prospect of speaking to anyone I didn’t know incredibly unsettling. Why go through that?

Legally speaking, we should all be worried when fundamental human rights, in particular those relating to due process, can be set aside over a total distortion of international law. The norms of international humanitarian law (IHL)—or the law of armed conflict—place great emphasis on mitigating hardships caused by armed actions between rival nation states.

However, in the conflict in Afghanistan, the U.S. government overlooks IHL in dealing with enemy combatants as criminals ineligible for prisoner of war status. The basis of this argument is the fact that the Afghan insurgents no longer find themselves in the employ of a recognized state body, originally encapsulated as the Taliban regime. As such they cannot be considered a legitimate armed force when it comes to ascertaining their rights upon capture. The conflict, so the logic goes, is no longer an international confrontation between states, but an internal confrontation between a terrorist insurgency and a beleaguered government the U.S. seeks to support.

This argument runs into several problems. The U.S. has repeatedly referred to its campaign against Al-Qaeda as a “war on terror” and has deployed its armed forces multiple times, against state and non-state actors. The question of whether this “war on terror” is an armed conflict, between one state and another or between a state and insurgency, appears suitably answered by the U.S. government’s actions and its long-standing belligerent rhetoric. As such, attempts to pick and choose from IHL seem ill advised.

What’s more, the two additional 1977 protocols to the Geneva Conventions have shed light on issues relating to internal armed conflicts specifically, including the treatment of civilians and armed insurgents. The U.S.’s effective kidnapping of multiple inmates now held at Guantanamo puts it on the wrong side of such codifications, a fact hardly refuted by the allegedly non-international nature of the Afghanistan theatre.

—Dan Read

(Continued in the next issue)

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