Updated: June 10, 2013 2:04PM
‘I don’t want these individuals to die,” President Barack Obama said when asked last week about the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
No, but is that his call to make?
To some who have languished for up to 11 years in intolerable conditions, without charges or trial, death might be preferable. It’s an awful prospect, but with every other right stripped away from them, the right to refuse food is one they still have.
A reported 23 hunger strikers are being force-fed with tubes, and three are hospitalized. They’re among 100 hunger strikers, part of the 160 non-Americans rounded up after 9/11 and designated as “enemy combatants.” They’ve been held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, even after 86 were cleared to leave.
Obama calls their limbo status “contrary to who we are.” But after 10 years, it has become who we are. If Obama doesn’t find a way to get them out fast, and they leave feet first, it will be to our everlasting shame.
Obama campaigned on closing the prison, which opened in 2002 to hold foreigners the Bush administration suspected of terrorism. But ever since he signed a 2009 order to suspend military proceedings at Guantanamo and to close it within the year, Obama has faced roadblocks he either hasn’t figured out how to circumvent or hasn’t had the will to.
In one case, he was overruled by a military judge. A Congress of his own party voted to block funding for the transfer or release of prisoners. A plan to move some to Illinois’ Thomson Correctional Center drew resistance.
In early 2010, 126 of the then 240 prisoners were approved for transfer. But only about two dozen were determined to be successfully prosecutable in federal court because of weak or little available evidence.
By March 2011, Obama signed another executive order setting a review process for detainees, but he also re-instituted military tribunals. Early this year, signaling the plan for closing Guantanamo was dead, the State Department closed the office of the envoy appointed to do that.
Human Rights Watch’s Andrea Prasow calls the president’s failure to deliver on his promise to close Guantanamo “one of the great tragedies of Obama’s first term.” The chief prosecutor for terrorism trials at Guantanamo from 2005 to 2007, Col. Morris Davis, has launched a petition calling on the president to again appoint someone to spearhead closing Guantanamo, and to transfer out the 86 cleared for release. “Since its beginning, Guantanamo has been costly, inefficient and morally wrong,” says his petition at Change.org.
Just because the detainees are not Americans doesn’t mean we’re not obligated — under international treaties and morally — to treat them according to our standards of justice. Prisoners cleared for release should be released. The others should be processed and let go if not found guilty.
Obama said he would “re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.”
That’s too open-ended. Though his wish to keep hunger strikers from dying is surely heartfelt, they are using a time-honored form of civil disobedience practiced by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and others using nonviolent means to drive unjust systems to change. Even the American Medical Association says it is wrong to force-feed inmates capable of making their own decisions.
Surely the Obama administration can act with urgency to save the lives of U.S. detainees perhaps guilty of nothing, yet with no hope of getting out.
Feeding tubes are not the solution. Only due process is.
Scripps Howard News Service
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.