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Guantánamo Bay force feeding inhuman and degrading, says UN

Force feeding hunger strikers in Guantánamo Bay is against international medical standards and should be stopped, according to a group of senior UN officials.

The human rights experts also warned that indefinite detention of suspects at the US prison camp in Cuba constituted "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" and should end, in a statement released through the UN's office of the high commissioner for human rights.

The declaration has been published in response to the hunger strike that started in February and involves up to 100 detainees. At least 21 are being forcibly fed.

The statement says: "According to the World Medical Assembly's Declaration of Malta, in cases involving people on hunger strikes, the duty of medical personnel to act ethically and the principle of respect for individuals' autonomy, among other principles, must be respected.

"Under these principles, it is unjustifiable to engage in forced feeding of individuals contrary to their informed and voluntary refusal of such a measure. Moreover, hunger strikers should be protected from all forms of coercion, even more so when this is done through force and in some cases through physical violence.

"Healthcare personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike. Nor is it acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike."

The statement is signed by El Hadji Malick Sow, chair of the UN working group on arbitrary detention; Juan E Méndez, UN special rapporteur on torture; Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights, and Anand Grover, UN special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. It is supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The experts pointed out that: "The Guantánamo detainees' lack of legal protection and the resulting anguish caused by the uncertainty regarding their future has led them to take the extreme step of a hunger strike to demand a real change to their situation."

Their continuing detention was "a flagrant violation of international human rights law and in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment".

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said: "We have received specific information regarding the severe and prolonged physiological and psychological damage caused by the detainees' high degree of uncertainty over basic aspects of their lives, such as not knowing whether they will be tried or whether they will be released and when; or whether they will see their family members again."

Emmerson drew attention to the fact that the US government had admitted there were at least 86 prisoners who had been cleared for transfer. "In other words," he noted, "all relevant security-related government agencies or authorities have expressly certified that those detainees do not represent a threat to US security."

The UN experts called on the US to either charge or release the detainees. Washington should "adopt all legislative, administrative, judicial, and any other types of measures necessary to prosecute, with full respect for the right to due process, the individuals being held at Guantánamo naval base or, where appropriate, to provide for their immediate release or transfer to a third country, in accordance with international law."

[Source: By Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent, The Guardian, London, 02May13]

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