The case against force feeding

Opinion by Mina Shah
Sept. 16, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

Mohammed Allan, a former Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli prison, has made international communities sit up and pay attention to his situation with the details of his imprisonment. Allan began a hunger strike on June 16, which was terminated when he lost consciousness as a result of fatigue from the striking; he was given food and nutrients intravenously by the prison staff.

Allan, a member of the extremist group Islamic Jihad, was released from his state of imprisonment following regaining consciousness. His situation, especially in the context of a relatively new Israeli law that allows force feeding hunger-strikers, raises lots of questions about whether there are situations in which state forces should be allowed to force feed individuals who go on hunger strikes if the strike approaches a point where the striker is in imminent danger of dying.

Ideally, hunger strikes shouldn’t come to a point where the more powerful body needs to force feed the hunger-striker. Part of the idea of a hunger strike is to call attention to a particular injustice that the striker feels is occurring and open a dialogue with the party committing the alleged injustice in an attempt to correct said injustice. If both parties are open to communication, a hunger strike can end in one of two ways: Either the party committing the injustice recognizes the wrong and meets the terms of the hunger striker, or the two come to a compromise acceptable to both parties. Either way, the person doing the hunger strike remains alive.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which negotiations between the striker and the power being struck against do not or cannot succeed. In those situations, one of two outcomes can occur: Either the hunger striker gives up and the thing called injustice remains in place, or the hunger-striker dies and the power in place must deal with the outcomes of said death. In Allan’s case, in light of the new Israeli law, a third option was possible: force-feeding to sustain the life of the hunger-striker without giving in to the striker’s demands.

Doctors who are part of Israel’s medical association are not endorsing the law by refusing to conduct the examinations necessary for the force-feeding to be carried out. Additionally, major international human rights groups call the idea of force-feeding unethical. Such practices have also been widely condemned when taking place at Guantanamo. Most of these condemnations have to do with whether the practice of force feeding is ethical or not. Whether or not the practice is ethical, though, it should adhere to international standards of law.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Article 19 subsequently states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression [including] freedom to hold opinions without interference and seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Taken together with the Declaration’s Article 29, regarding situations in which a person’s freedoms as such can be limited (only in the case when the exercise of those freedoms prevents another person’s similar exercise), a hunger strike should theoretically be protected. The article protecting from inhuman treatment protects him from having food forced on him. The article protecting freedom of opinion allows him to have an opinion that his imprisonment is an injustice and it allows him to express the feelings he has relating to the subject however he chooses, including by starving himself, if it doesn’t directly harm anyone else, which it doesn’t seem to.

Thus, it seems that even putting aside the question of ethics and simply focusing on standardly guiding international legal documents, hunger strikes to the death should be permitted, free of hindrance by force feeding.

Allan’s case has another few layers of complexity to it, though. Firstly, he is part of an Islamic extremist group, which some feel changes the dynamics of the situation, such that his participation in such a group makes it especially necessary that he not be bargained with or gain a sort of martyr status from dying while conducting a hunger strike. Secondly, it was feared that if he were allowed to die, his death would spark outrage and violence from his supporters, with which the Israeli government was worried about dealing.

Neither of these concerns, though, is enough to deprive Mr. Allan of his human rights. He went into this hunger strike very aware of the possibility that it could kill him and clearly with an intent to die if his demands were not met. It is not his responsibility to stay alive for the sake of the Israeli government. And it is not their right to force him to continue living if he has decided upon a particular course for himself.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ 

Mina Shah

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