With hunger strikes now underway at U.S. prisons in Cuba and California, U.S. detention policies are once again in the global spotlight, being called a violation of international norms tantamount to torture.
Last week, an international body called on the United States to once and for all close the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which counts the U.S. as one of its 57 member states, adopted a resolution at its Annual Session in Istanbul, calling “for the permanent closing of this detention facility as soon as possible.”
Although generally very soft on the U.S. government and taking pains to avoid criticism of the overall policy of indefinite detention and the torturous force-feeding taking place at Gitmo, the resolution nevertheless reiterates the OSCE PA’s longstanding calls for the closure of this prison and “recommends an increased co-operation between Europe and the United States as regards the concrete implementation of the closing of Guantanamo.”
It was the fifth time since 2003 that the OSCE PA had called for the prison’s closure.
In introducing the resolution, its sponsor Lord Alf Dubs noted that President Obama has indicated that he still believes that Guantanamo should be closed. Dubs drew attention to the hunger strike taking place at Gitmo and noted that it is the responsibility of all countries that have nationals at Gitmo to receive these prisoners. He pointed out that the British government has indicated it would allow Shaker Aamer, a British national unjustly held for 11 years at Guantanamo, to return to the UK, but to this date the U.S. government has refused to release him.
Dubs further noted widespread international criticism of the Guantanamo prison camp, with the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting the profound damage to psychological health posed by indefinite detention, and UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay raising serious questions about the prison camp’s compliance with international law.
Notably, rather than calling out the U.S. for its human rights abuses, most delegates to the OSCE PA used the opportunity to obliquely praise the United States for its “commitment” to closing the prison camp, with only Belarus strongly criticizing the U.S. government for its failure to do so. (Watch the debate in the original floor language – including English, French and Russian – here.)
Nevertheless, the resolution was adopted overwhelmingly, with the U.S. delegation abstaining.
As this resolution was adopted, a video began going viral depicting the horrific practice of force-feeding at Guantanamo. Based on a leaked document which sets out the military instructions, or standard operating procedure, for force-feeding detainees, the four-minute film made by the human rights organization Reprieve depicts U.S. actor and rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), experiencing the procedure.
After four days on YouTube, the video had already received 2.5 million views.
Currently, more than 100 Gitmo detainees are on hunger strike, with more than 40 being force-fed twice a day in gruesome procedures that last up to two hours. Carlos Warner, a lawyer who represents several hunger strikers, told the Guardian in June: “The hunger strike grows for two reasons: the military’s refusal to negotiate with the men in a productive way and because the president has taken no action in spite of his words.”
The practice of force-feeding is at odds with international medical policy on prisoners’ right to refuse nourishment.
In 2006, the World Medical Association, an organization that represents physicians around the world, issued the Declaration of Tokyo, which states: “Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”
The American Medical Association has also said that the practice “violates core ethical values of the medical profession.”
Despite these grave concerns over the force-feeding going on at Guantanamo Bay, prison officials at Pelican Bay State Prison in California are now preparing to force-feed thousands of inmates who are on a hunger strike to protest prolonged solitary confinement, as well as other “medieval conditions” in the California prison system.
With originally 29,000 hunger strikers, about 12,000 prisoners being held in two-thirds of California’s 33 prisons have refused meals for the fourth consecutive day in a show of solidarity against conditions at Pelican Bay.
Denied telephone calls, contact visits and education, work or rehabilitation programs, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay are isolated for at least 22 and a half hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells.
Held under these conditions for more than a decade and some over 20 years, the SHU prisoners began striking on Monday and the protest spread. Californian officials instituted an official state response when the strike entered its fourth day, which includes aggressive monitoring of inmates’ health and possible force feeding.
The prisoners’ five demands include:
1. Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommendations and end long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5. Create and expand constructive programming.
As Amnesty International points out, the practice of long-term solitary confinement is in violation the United States’ international obligations:
While there may be instances where holding prisoners in isolation is appropriate and humane, the use of prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement is a violation of the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment found in international human rights law. By violating this prohibition, U.S. authorities not only abuse the rights of prisoners, they undermine the human rights that protect all of us from abuse.
Nevertheless, “more than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units known as Security Housing Units, where they are confined for at least 22 and a half hours a day in single or double cells, with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind,” Amnesty notes.
More than 500 prisoners have spent 10 or more years in the Pelican Bay SHU, with 78 in solitary more than 20 years. While California holds the most prisoners in solitary, the practice is widespread across the United States.
To add your name to a petition in support of the California hunger strikers, click here.
To call for the closure of Guantanamo, click here.
Nationwide actions in support of the California hunger strike can be found at Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.
Events of the past week have demonstrated that despite occasional grumblings from Europe about U.S. misconduct on the world stage, at the end of the day, it is only Latin America that is willing to take concrete action to challenge the systemic lawlessness of the U.S. government.
Although European leaders were humiliated by the United States when it was revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks that the NSA has been tapping the telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington — as well as the governments of Germany, France, Greece, Italy and others — Europe largely fell into line in submitting to U.S. dictates regarding Snowden’s asylum requests.
The U.S. spying on diplomatic missions of the EU and individual European nations is a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention which states that “the official correspondence” as well as “the premises” of diplomatic missions “shall be inviolable.”
The individual’s right to privacy is also enshrined in numerous human rights conventions including in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child. It is also guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Despite Snowden revealing these U.S. violations of international law on European territory, ten EU countries indicated that they would deny the whistleblower’s political asylum requests, with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying that Snowden’s request would be reviewed by German authorities “according to the law,” but he “could not imagine” that it would be approved.
This is despite the bluster displayed by German leaders when the story broke about the NSA snooping into the emails and phone conversations of European nations, including Germany. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, described the disclosures of massive U.S. spying in Europe as unacceptable.
“We are no longer in the Cold War,” said Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert. “If it is confirmed that diplomatic representations of the European Union and individual European countries have been spied upon, we will clearly say that bugging friends is unacceptable.”
The French president, François Hollande, also called the spying intolerable.
“We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies,” Hollande said. “We ask that this stop immediately.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that if confirmed, the activities would be “totally unacceptable”.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, said that if the report was correct, it would have a “severe impact” on relations between the EU and the United States.
“On behalf of the European Parliament, I demand full clarification and require further information speedily from the US authorities with regard to these allegations,” he said in a statement.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Der Spiegel: “If these reports are true, it’s disgusting. The United States would be better off monitoring its secret services rather than its allies. We must get a guarantee from the very highest level now that this stops immediately.”
But when it comes to the tangible actions – rather than just strong words – that are needed to effectively stand up to the United States, European leaders are missing in action. Indeed, when push comes to shove, and these leaders are leaned upon to take unprecedented and legally questionable measures to assist the U.S. in its overzealous manhunt of Edward Snowden, they have largely fallen into line.
For example, when the United States received a tip that Snowden may have been on a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was flying home from a Moscow summit via Western Europe, European governments fell over themselves to do the bidding of the United States, with France, Spain and Portugal all refusing to let Morales’ plane through their airspace.
The plane was forced to land in Austria, where it remained grounded for 14 hours as the authorities determined that Snowden was not on board.
Morales called the rerouting of his plane a violation of national sovereignty and a provocation to all of Latin America, urging European countries to “free themselves” from the undue influence of the United States.
“It is an open provocation to the continent, not only to the president; they use the agent of North American imperialism to scare us and intimidate us,” Morales told supporters gathered at the airport in La Paz to greet him.
“I regret [saying] this, but I want to say that some European countries should free themselves from North American imperialism,” he said.
Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, criticized European countries’ role in the rerouting of Morales’s plane, describing it as an act of cowardice.
“The European people have seen the cowardice and the weakness of their governments, which now look like colonies of the U.S.,” he said on Friday.
The actions were also likely a violation of international law. Michael Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International, said that the grounding of Morales’ plane, as well as reports that Vice President Joe Biden had phoned the Ecuadorean leader, Rafael Correa, to block asylum for Snowden, carried serious legal implications.
“Interfering with the right to seek asylum is a serious problem in international law,” Bochenek said. “It is further evidence that he [Snowden] has a well-founded fear of persecution. This will be relevant to any state when considering an application. International law says that somebody who fears persecution should not be returned to that country.”
Unlike the European countries cowering in the face of U.S. power even when they are humiliated and provoked, Latin America responded forcefully to the lawless behavior of the United States.
Following a meeting of Latin American leaders on Thursday, three countries – Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – stepped forward to indicate that they would accept Snowden as a political refugee fleeing persecution by the United States.
Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro cited humanitarian grounds for his decision to help the whistleblower.
“We have decided to offer humanitarian asylum to the American Edward Snowden to protect him from the persecution being unleashed by the world’s most powerful empire,” Maduro said.
For their part, EU politicians have questioned the future of trade talks set to begin this week. The European Commission has officially asked Washington to investigate the allegations while France’s government said that it wanted to delay the start of U.S.-EU trade talks.
A German official has suggested that Europeans stop patronizing American Internet companies such as Google and Facebook if they are concerned about their privacy.