- Anthi Likitsakos
Is Force-feeding Torture?
When we think of torture, we might think of war criminals, communist states, and violent and gruesome practices. However, some types of torture persist in Democratic countries and may be inflicted on people who have not committed a single crime.
This was the case of Ajay Kumar, an asylum seeker from India who had been detained by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for more than a year after entering the United States via the California border. After 40 days of a hunger strike, Kumar was tied down and a feeding tube was forced up his nose and into his stomach, making him vomit blood, in a detention facility in El Paso, Texas. Kumar had fled India because of political persecution. Due to his political activism, Kumar was receiving real threats. During his time spent in ICE detention, where conditions were abysmal and identical to many prisons, Kumar’s father was killed back in India. Kumar began his hunger strike in hopes of being released, and also to protest the facility’s unwillingness to provide him with food that complied with his Hindu beliefs and dietary restrictions.
Force-feeding has been outlawed in international law by the World Medical Association, specifically in the Treaty of Tokyo in 1975. The WMA condemns all force-feeding, stating that it is never justified and that patient autonomy should supersede medical interventions, even in prisons. Other national and international medical organizations also cite this practice as unethical and many human rights organizations go so far as to categorize it as torture.
The right to hunger strikes as a form of protest has been recognized by international organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Nations for decades. Force-feeding, quite violent and intrusive, takes this right of protest and bodily autonomy away from those with few options left in incarceration. Historically, self-starvation is a way for imprisoned people to exercise civil disobedience, such as Gandhi during the battle for Indian independence from Britain or Nelson Mandela protesting the conditions on Robben Island during apartheid. For many behind bars now, hunger strikes are the only way to protest ill care, treatment, solitary confinement, or even imprisonment.
However, despite international precedents, the practice of force-feeding has been upheld in US federal courts. Kumar had not eaten in well over a month when the government sought an order from a judge that allowed them to force-feed him and three other Indian asylum seekers. Global Precision Systems, a security company, was contracted by ICE to perform the force-feedings. A video taken of the force-feeding of Kumar was released to the Intercept, a news organization after they procured it through the Freedom of Information Act and by filing a lawsuit. The video is almost an hour long and shows guards in riot gear preparing to use “calculated force” on Kumar to force-feed him. ICE blocked out everyone’s faces but Kumars. Kumar, weak from his hunger strike, was held down by guards and tied to a chair. The medical staff then explained the process to Kumar, using an online interpreter. They then tried to insert a feeding tube through his nose and into his stomach, succeeding on the second try. Kumar remembers the procedure as painful, that his nose was damaged and bleeding, and that he threw up blood after.
Force feedings have been employed by the US for decades, most notoriously used on prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Guantanamo Bay is infamous for its housing of Muslim militants and expected terrorists and its alleged violations of human rights and accusations of torture. Many detainees protested their indefinite and arbitrary holdings through hunger strikes, trying to make the public aware of their situations. Guantanamo Bay officials responded by force-feeding, against the recommendations of international rights organizations and medical officials who argued that detainees hunger striking should receive individualized care based on need and not simply be force-fed. In some cases, the C.I.A. would sometimes use rectal feeding and rectal hydration on prisoners, defending the practice as a sound medical procedure. The rectal feeding employed there has been denounced by medical professionals who see it as torture, not founded in science and sexual assault. The force-feedings conducted on Guantanamo were often not up to par with not only ethics but medical standards.
Force-feeding on Guantanamo Bay has resurfaced in the news recently, as a former prisoner has accused current governor Ron Desantis of being present at his force-feedings. Mansoor Adayfi, a citizen of Yemen who was a prisoner at Guantanamo for fourteen years, recognized Desantis, who is a contender in the 2024 presidential election, after seeing him on television. Adayfi remembers that Desantis was present at least one of the times he was force-fed on Guantanamo. Adayfi said that Desantis watched from behind a chain-linked fence while he was brutally force-fed and was screaming and crying. Desantis being there for these kinds of abuses has been well documented in public records and numerous interviews. As someone with a bid for the presidency, he is surely going to be facing questions on his time at Guantanamo and how that influences his politics.
Desantis served on the base during a year that was marked by death and hunger strikes, and even after his time there continued to advocate for the base to remain open and the people there imprisoned. Desantis served in the Navy as a prosecutor, and in an interview with a local CBS news station said he advised on the legality of force-feeding at Guantanamo. Desantis said the lawyers at Guantanamo told the staff “Hey, you actually can force-feed,” and advised on its rules. Desantis has recently denied authorizing force-feedings, but not advising on their legality.
Almost a decade after the hunger strikes and force-feedings at Guantanamo, the US still utilizes this unethical practice of force-feeding, not only on prisoners but on migrants seeking asylum and a possibility of a new life in the United States. In 2019, the year that Kumar was force-fed, there were another forty hunger strikes in the El Paso facility and thirteen force-feedings. Kumar’s case is not unique, and many detainees are subject to force-feedings and decreased bodily autonomy due to their incarcerated state.
Unfortunately, force-feeding is not only legal in the United States but is utilized around the world. Following the hunger strikes of imprisoned Palestinians seeking individual or collective rights, the Israelian parliament passed a law allowing the force-feeding of prisoners, despite objections from the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on torture and the right to health. Force feeding is also sometimes used outside of prisons, for example in Mauritania. Young girls are force-fed thousands of calories a day by their mothers or women whose jobs it is to force-feed. Being thin is seen as negative in the beauty standards and girls are often sent to “fattening farms'' as young as five years old. This is all in the hopes of finding suitable husbands for the girls at young ages and can have serious medical implications as well as dehumanize girls and women.
While force-feeding may not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about torture, it is clear that the spoon can be as harmful and invasive as a club.
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.