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Guantanamo force-feedings: Obama’s Catch-22

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2013-07-12

Obama is facing pressure from senators, rights groups, a judge, and even a rapper to end the force-feeding of Guantanamo inmates on hunger strike. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the US president’s latest dilemma.

For the second time this summer, President Barack Obama finds himself in the hot seat for failing to stop what his critics qualify as a disturbing abuse of US power.

After taking hits from editorialists, rights groups and politicians at home and abroad for upholding widespread US surveillance programmes, Obama is now facing mounting pressure to end the controversial force-feeding of hunger-striking inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

On Wednesday, July 10, prominent Democratic Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois penned a letter urging the president to curb the practice, which sees terror suspects who refuse to eat often being strapped to chairs and fed through naso-gastric tubes (which pump liquid food through the nose and into the stomach).

Protest from senators, a federal judge and a famous rapper

Though Feinstein and Durbin never explicitly say that all force-feeding should be halted, they argue that it should be dramatically curtailed.

“We...encourage you to direct the Department of Defense to stop conducting such large-scale force-feedings and, where force-feeding is medically necessary to save a detainee’s life, to observe the protections required at US Bureau of Prisons facilities…[including] several safeguards and oversight mechanisms that are not in place at Guantanamo,” the letter reads.

The letter comes on the heels of a statement from a federal judge earlier in the week that only the president has the power to bring an end to the procedure.

Though the judge concluded that she had no jurisdiction over claims concerning the treatment of detainees (in this case, a motion filed by a Syrian prisoner to cease force-feedings during Ramadan), she urged Obama to act: “[T]here is an individual who does have the authority to address the issue,” US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler wrote in her ruling, specifying that in her interpretation, the US Constitution gives the president the “power” to do so.

“As a matter of policy, of legal authority, the Obama administration can absolutely stop the force-feeding at Guantanamo whenever it wants,” confirmed Wells Bennett, a national security law expert at the Brookings Institution. “But there’s no indication that he’s planning on doing so.”

In her ruling, Judge Kessler referenced statements from the American Medical Association and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as testimonies from prisoners themselves, suggesting that “force-feeding is a painful, humiliating and degrading process”.

To illustrate the point, human rights group Reprieve published an online video on Monday, in which rapper-actor Yasiin Bey (known as Mos Def), handcuffed and clad in orange prison garb, undergoes a force-feeding. Tied to a chair, he writhes in pain as medical personnel push a fluid-filled tube up his nose and down into his throat. He finally cries out, “Please stop, I can’t do it”, before turning to the camera to explain how excruciating the procedure is.

Obama ‘inconsistent’?

Of the 166 terror suspects currently detained at Guantanamo, 106 are on hunger strike and 45 of them are undergoing force-feeding, the US military recently said.

The Obama administration has insisted that the procedure is carried out with respect for the prisoners’ physical welfare, and that Muslim hunger strikers’ concerns about being force-fed during Ramadan are unfounded, since the feedings are at night (in accordance with Islamic fasting regulations).

The White House has also sought to frame force-feedings in a more humane light, with Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, telling reporters on Tuesday that “we don’t want these individuals to die, and the action being taken is to prevent that”.

But the feedings have placed the president in an especially awkward position in light of a national security speech he delivered on May 23, in which he said: “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike…Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”

“This has become a real problem for Obama,” said Matthew Dallek, an international security scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. “He made that speech criticising the feedings. And he also campaigned on a promise to close Guantanamo entirely. Five years later, the prison is not only still open; it’s making headlines.”

Dallek noted that force-feeding has been qualified by some, including the UN human rights body, as torture – making the practice a direct violation of the torture ban Obama himself implemented shortly after taking office in 2009.

“I don’t think force-feeding is at all akin to waterboarding,” Dallek assessed. “But there’s an international body of law that condemns it. So the Obama administration agreeing to force-feed prisoners creates the impression that its actions are inconsistent with both international norms on human rights and with its own policies.”

The difficulty of being a ‘post-9/11 president’

At a time when the president is hoping to keep the US economic recovery on track -- and to see Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform, potentially the signature policy achievement of Obama’s second term – the force-feeding controversy is an unwelcome distraction for the White House.

But it is not clear that if Obama halted the force-feedings, he would be off the hook. “If he does stop it, and prisoners starve themselves to death, that becomes another international scandal,” Dallek said. “I’m not sure the president has any good solutions -- only tough choices.”

As for what Dallek calls the “disgruntlement” of some of Obama’s core supporters on the left, many of whom were still reeling from the NSA scandal when the latest Guantanamo drama surfaced, that seems to come with the territory.

“Of course, with the surveillance and the use of drones and the CIA, Obama has been more hardline on national security than a lot of liberals thought he would be,” Dallek noted. “But it’s very difficult for a post-9/11 president to err on the side of civil liberties rather than protection. Once you enter the Oval Office, there are a lot of pressures, both politically and militarily.”

Despite Obama’s passivity in the face of force-feeding at Guantanamo, the “Bush 2.0” label some pundits have used to describe his approach to national security is, by many accounts, an overstatement.

“Obama has withdrawn troops from Iraq, is talking about ending the US military presence in Afghanistan completely, and curbed some of Bush’s counterterrorism tactics,” Dallek said. “If in three years, we’re done with two wars and there have been no terrorist acts against the US, the balance of evidence may shed favourable light on him.”

In other words, Obama seems to be hoping to carve out a place in US presidential history as the man who pulled off the tricky feat of keeping America safe while also winding down ‘the war on terror’.

Date created : 2013-07-12

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