Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Incacerated and Hunger Strikes

By Lesley Wexler

Prisoners and detainees have long used hunger strikes to communicate their dissatisfaction with the conditions of confinement. While such activities and the ensuing government  responses were once closely associated with the British treatment of the Irish prisoners. For background click here. Such practices have come home with recent strikes in places like California as well as Guantanamo and Bagram. Hunger strikers can simultaneously exercise their human right to autonomy and draw attention to detention officials' deprivation of other human rights. In turn, government responses can themselves beget more human rights violations as with worsened conditions of confinement and aggressive force feeding .

            In the wake of the one year anniversary of the California prison hunger strikes involving more than 30,000 individuals, now seems a good time to take stock of the aftermath. California did not offer any major concessions such as abolishing solitary confinement, but it did offer to hold public hearings on the conditions of confinement.  At the same time however, the California Department of Corrections reportedly responded to the strikes by “propos[ing] a new level of censorship, banning any materials coming into or going out of the prison that “indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society.” Meanwhile, the movement supporting hunger strikers continues with anniversary demonstrations held across California, other states, and even in other countries.  In addition, hunger strikers across the globe have forged ties in other ways as well. For instance, Palestinian prisoners wrote in support of Californian strikers last year and in turn, U.S. hunger strike supporters provided encouragement to Palestinian hunger strikers in May and June of this year. See here  and here.

             As the U.S. government has chosen to respond to hunger strikes with force feeding, new and unexpected challenges  have been gathering momentum. 2013 saw the first wave of detainee force feeding litigation, with spring 2014 bringing suits from Guantanamo detainees Emad Hassan and Abu Dhiab who challenge particular force feeding practices. In addition, at least one U.S. government actor has refused to participate in activities designed to subvert the hunger strikers at Guantanamo. Abu Dhiab reported to his lawyers that an unnamed U.S. navy nurse recently ended his participation in the force feeding over ethical concerns about the practices. Numerous organizations have spoken out in support of the nurse's actions including Physicians for Human Rights .

Domestic prison strikes, detainee strikes at U.S. facilities, and international strikes against other governments seem likely to inform and influence one another.  Strikers and governments may learn from one another’s political and legal tactics. Equally important, human rights actors have the opportunity to urge the adoption and implementation of universal standards for detainment that can avoid such strikes in the first place and allay the abuses of governments when they do happen.

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