If force-feeding detainees really constitutes torture under international law, then why does the United Nations do it? In 2006, the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ordered the force-feeding of Serbian warlord Vojislav Seselj, who was protesting his prosecution. “The trial . . . should not be undermined by the accused’s manipulative behaviour,” the U.N. judges declared in a statement, adding that under international law force-feeding is not “torture, inhuman or degrading treatment if there is a medical necessity to do so . . . and if the manner in which the detainee is force-fed is not inhuman or degrading.”
Did the U.N. court commit torture? If force-feeding detainees is good enough for the Hague, it’s good enough for Guantanamo Bay.
Nasogastric feeding is not torture — not by a long shot. It is a common procedure used thousands of times a day by doctors and nurses in hospitals across the United States. Moreover, according to the Feeding Tube Awareness Foundation, some 345,000 Americans use feeding tubes at home every day — including many children (who are known affectionately in the feeding tube community as “tubies”). There are “do it yourself” nasogastric tube insertion guides for parents that can be found online.
Are these parents “torturing” their children?
The anti-Guantanamo group Reprieve posted a video on YouTube showing rapper and liberal activist Mos Def undergoing the procedure as he writhes and pleads, “Please stop, I can’t do it.” The video has received some 5 million views.
There is another video on YouTube that is far more instructive. In it, a young girl looks sweetly into the camera and says: “Hi, my name is Natalie, and I’m just going to do a little demonstration on how to insert your nasogastric feeding tube.” She then proceeds to painlessly insert the tube through her nose, while calmly walking viewers through each step of the process in a matter of fact voice. At the end, she says: “If it’s your first time, it is scary at the beginning . . . but as you just saw it doesn’t hurt at all.”
If a young girl like Natalie can handle a feeding tube, so can the big tough al-Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
The truth is, many of the detainees refusing food at Guantanamo are not doing so voluntarily but are under pressure from terrorist leaders inside the camp. As one Guantanamo official explained to me when I visited in 2009, the “detainees are still organized; they still have a chain of command, with leaders and followers.” When more than 100 detainees join a hunger strike, it isn’t a spontaneous protest — it is an carefully organized effort, directed and enforced by Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership at Guantanamo.
It is difficult for lower-ranking detainees to refuse to participate in a hunger strike. Most are not held in individual cells (where they could receive food out of sight from terrorist leaders) but in a communal living situation. That means they must take meals out in the open. If they ignore orders to refuse food, all the other terrorists know it.
However, at the detainee hospital where the nasogastric feeding takes place, it is a different story. When I toured the facility, a nurse explained that, out of sight of their superiors, most of the detainees cooperate fully with the procedure. They even choose the flavor of Ensure they will use (the detainees can smell and even taste it when they belch).
One former senior Guantanamo official recalled how “detainees on long-term hunger strike would frequently remind staff of when they were due their feeding, and complain if it were not on time.” During a 2005 hunger strike, this official said, some detainees even asked to keep their tubes inserted and “were sufficiently nourished to run laps around the inner yard with the tube coiled up around an ear.”
Kessler called on President Obama to stop the force-feeding, citing Obama’sspeech at the National Defense University where the president decried the practice, asking “Is this who we are?” Well, what exactly is Obama supposed to do — let the detainees die? The same people condemning him for force-feeding detainees would be condemning him for killing them.
The fact is, at Guantanamo, force-feeding prevents forced suicide. The procedure is not pleasant, but detainees who are compelled to refuse food are more than happy to get the nutrition without having to violate orders from their chain of command. They can truthfully tell their superiors they had no choice (and embellish stories of resistance if they so choose). The temporary discomfort sure beats being forced to starve to death.
And it certainly isn’t torture.
Just ask young Natalie.