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Navy Nurse Should Not be Punished for Declining to Force-Feed Guantánamo Detainees

PHR Welcomes American Nurses Association’s (ANA) Statement Supporting Nurses’ Professional Autonomy

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today welcomed the American Nurses Association’s (ANA) statement supporting a nurse who refused to force-feed Guantánamo detainees based on his professional ethical obligations. PHR urged the U.S. Navy to end any disciplinary actions against the nurse, who has been charged with misconduct and faces potential discharge from the military.

“Nurses, like physicians, have professional duties to respect the autonomous decisions of their patients and never participate in ill-treatment or torture,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “This nurse has shown exemplary commitment to his profession’s ethics by refusing to comply with a military policy that has no clinical justification and is inherently harmful. The Navy should not punish him for refusing to compromise established ethical principles.”

Today’s statement represents the first time the ANA has spoken publicly about force-feeding at Guantánamo, signaling the wider nursing community’s interest in the nurse’s situation and the military’s treatment of medical professionals. The ANA also released communications it had with top defense officials urging them not to punish the nurse for exercising his professional rights and duties. PHR emphasized that the codes of conduct for nurses and physicians mandate respect for patient autonomy and the principle of doing no harm, and that military clinicians are legally and ethically bound to comply.

The Navy is considering holding an administrative trial that could lead to the nurse’s discharge from the Navy, in which he has served for 18 years. His decision not to participate in force-feeding was revealed through Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Guantánamo detainee challenging his force-feeding in federal court. Dhiab’s case has shed light on the cruel and unnecessary methods used at Guantánamo, including the use of five-point restraint chairs and forced cell extractions.

“All physicians and nurses share a duty to put their patients first and act in their best interests, no matter the circumstances,” said Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs. “Punishing this nurse for upholding the humane treatment of his patients sends a message that medical professionalism is not respected at Guantánamo.”

The World Medical Association and the American Medical Association are among the leading medical groups that prohibit force-feeding of competent adults. PHR said that health professionals should never take part, and pointed out that the main purpose of the Department of Defense’s force-feeding policy is to keep detainees from protesting over a decade of indefinite detention without charge. In response to criticism of these practices, the U.S. government has applied secrecy rules to any information regarding its treatment of hunger strikers.

PHR calls on the U.S. government to:

  • Immediately end the practice of force-feeding hunger strikers and institute policies and procedures consistent with the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo and Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers;
  • Ensure that no health professionals are compelled to participate in force-feeding, and that those who refuse do not face disciplinary or retaliatory actions for complying with their professional obligations; and
  • Commit to full transparency around hunger strikes at Guantánamo and medical management policies and protocols, including the release of Dhiab’s force-feeding videotapes.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.