By Jon Silverman
In recent years, democracies that have resorted to ethically distasteful techniques against prisoners have hidden behind linguistic camouflage. Waterboarding becomes “enhanced interrogation”.Unlawfully seizing foreign nationals and taking them in secret across two continents is “extraordinary rendition’.
But in the century since it came to prominence as a response to the hunger strikes of the suffragettes, force-feeding has never been sanitised. Neither the justification of Israel’s Public Security Ministry nor the ruling of the rabbinic sages of Tzohar that it does not contravene halacha will rub away the ethical stains. Force-feeding in the circumstances contemplated in Israel’s prisons against Palestinian inmates, some of whom are “administrative detainees”, is, in my view, an abuse of human rights.
I emphasise “in my view’”because, as a believer in international law, I’m duty bound to record that the European Court of Human Rights has faced both ways on this, permitting the force-feeding of a prisoner in Switzerland, and finding against it in the case of Ukraine and Moldova. So, whether the Knesset legislates to allow force-feeding of hunger strikers, this is a case where ethics rather than the letter of the law are the deciding factor. Yet there’s an irony in the fact that Israeli law would require the express permission of a court before a prisoner could be force-fed. Why ironic ? Because, as “administrative detainees”, some of them have never had the opportunity to appear before a court to have their innocence or guilt tested.
When state interest collides with personal freedom I find myself returning to the wisdom of the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote:“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” (On Liberty, 1859).
Israel’s Public Security Ministry would no doubt contend that allowing hunger strikers to die could undermine security in the jails and, by extension, create a wider instability in Gaza and the West Bank. But I do not believe that that potential overrides the only actual freedom which an incarcerated individual in full possession of his (or her) faculties has: the right to choose what happens to their own body.
Many health workers in Israel and Physicians for Human Rights have condemned the proposed legislation. Some have compared it to legalising a form of torture. This is in line with declarations by the World Medical Association (Tokyo, 1975 and Malta, 1991 ). Neither legally nor ethically is it torture, although when you read some of the accounts of suffragettes subjected to force-feeding by having tubes inserted into their noses or rectums in the early 20th century, torture is the word that springs to mind. The historian Jane Purvis called it a “physical and spiritual violation, akin to rape”.
The UK was faced with a dilemma in 1981 when Irish republican prisoners began a hunger strike. A decision was taken not to force-feed and instead the Thatcher government entered into secret talks – which have only come to light in Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher – some causes of the Northern Ireland conflict. The discussions foundered, the Troubles continued and ten hunger strikers died. Yes, they were mythologised as martyrs but just as much capital would have been made had they been kept alive by force-feeding. At least they were allowed the dignity of determining their fate.
I leave administrative detention for others to pronounce upon. Faced with an existential security threat as Israel does, there may be times when it is justified. But force-feeding is an assault on the integrity of a person’s body and soul. Whatever their motivation, everyone has the right to retain that integrity.