ResourcesPress Release

PHR Welcomes Nurse’s Decision to Honor Medical Ethics by Refusing to Force-Feed Guantánamo Detainees

For Immediate Release

Editor's Note: This press release has been updated to reflect corrections to Dr. Vincent Iacopino's and Donna McKay's quotes.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today it supports the refusal of a U.S. Navy nurse to continue force-feeding Guantánamo Bay prisoners, who are engaged in hunger strikes as a legitimate form of protest against indefinite detention.

"This nurse is respecting the medical profession’s core ethics, which unequivocally prohibit the inhuman and degrading practice of force-feeding," said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. "His refusal to participate demonstrates an understanding that force-feeding is being used to punish detainees protesting torture and years of indefinite detention without any legal charges. Medical professionals should have no role in the unlawful practice of force-feeding, and we commend this nurse for honoring that professional obligation."

The nurse’s decision is reportedly the first time a medical officer at Guantánamo has refused to participate in force-feeding. News outlets report that the nurse has since been reassigned to other duties at the prison camp.

Leading medical professionals and associations have condemned the use of force-feeding of mentally competent individuals, including the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association (WMA). The practice at Guantánamo involves shackling detainees to a restraint chair and administering nutrition through a nasogastric tube. Detainees are often immobilized and transported to and from the feedings by "forced cell extraction" teams – military police in riot gear. PHR has consistently criticized force-feeding for violating not only medical ethics, but also individuals’ fundamental right to make decisions about their own health.

U.S. government officials have stopped releasing information about the hunger strike and the number of detainees being force-fed. The practice of force-feeding is taking place in the context of prolonged, arbitrary, and unlawful detention. Of the 149 remaining detainees, over half have been cleared for release. Most have been held there without charge for over a decade.

PHR reiterated its call for President Barack Obama to end force-feeding immediately and institute policies consistent with the WMA’s Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers. PHR has also called for greater transparency around the hunger strikes, including information about how many detainees remain on strike, how many are being force-fed, and how many are being subjected to forced cell extractions. PHR is also calling on other medical personnel at the prison to follow their professional and ethical duties by refusing to participate in force-feeding.

"This nurse, and any other medical professionals who may refuse to participate in force-feeding, should not be subject to any disciplinary actions for refusing to follow unethical and unlawful orders," said Donna McKay, PHR’s executive director.

You can find a fact sheet about hunger strikes and the practice of force-feeding here. You can also find a letter here about force-feeding from more than 35 doctors and public health professionals to President Obama.

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.

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