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Ethics briefings
  1. Martin Davies,
  2. Sophie Brannan,
  3. Eleanor Chrispin,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian C Sheather

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Human rights

Force-feeding of detainees at Guantánamo Bay

In April, the US Department of Defense (DOD) reportedly sent 40 additional military medical personnel, including doctors and nurses, to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base to carry out the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike.1 By the end of June, up to 104 of the remaining 166 individuals held in US military detention at Guantánamo were refusing food. The protest against conditions at the base, and the fate of those being held there—including those already cleared for transfer or release—began in February 2013. In June, it was reported that as many as 44 of the hunger strikers were being force-fed by military medical teams.2

The response by the US authorities to the hunger strike prompted expressions of outrage from the international medical community.3 ,4 In April, the American Medical Association wrote to the US secretary of defense, insisting that ‘forced feeding of [competent] detainees violates core ethical values of the medical profession.’5 Adding the voice of the profession in the UK to these calls, at its annual conference in June, the British Medical Association (BMA) condemned the participation of doctors and nurses in the force-feeding, calling on governments worldwide to ensure that all prisoners have access to confidential, independent medical treatment, and supporting any clinician who challenged cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Also in June, the BMA Chairman wrote to President Obama and US secretary of defense, Hagel, urging them to immediately suspend medical involvement in force-feeding at Guantánamo, and to institute an urgent inquiry into how the current situation was allowed to develop.

Force-feeding mentally competent adults who are refusing food is a clear violation of medical ethics and is unjustifiable, as articulated by the World Medical Association's Declaration of Malta.6 Doctors with dual loyalties, including military doctors, are bound by the same …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i The Caldicott review describes safe havens as accredited organisations with a secure electronic environment in which personal confidential data and/or de-identified data can be obtained and made available to users, generally in de-identified form

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