Why the Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikes Probably Won't Work

Starving is surprisingly effective form of prison protest. But only if your cause is sympathetic to begin with.


Portraits of Yemeni inmates at Guantanamo Bay are held up by relatives during a protest to demand their release outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on April 1, 2013. (Reuters)

By all accounts, a hunger strike is not something you want to be doing. Most people need about 1,200 calories daily to keep their organs functioning. Getting dramatically less than that for days at a time can lead to things like chronic diarrhea, cracking skin, breaking nails and mental fogginess. When things get particularly grim, you're force fed -- a process that involves being strapped down and pumped full of liquid nutritional supplement through your nose.

Still, the grueling form of protest is a popular tactic for prisoners who may have few other options. A massive, months-long hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay prison continues to grow as prisoners protest both a handful of specific injustices, such as the searching of Korans, as well as the seeming endlessness of their captivity. On Monday, activists and relatives of around 90 Yemeni detainees held in Guantanamo protested outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa to demand the prisoners' release.

A shocking proportion of the total detainees at Guantanamo are striking, according to a recent report in the New Yorker by Amy Davidson. The hunger strike began last week with 31 prisoners, and it was 37 by Friday -- or nearly one in four of the 166 total prisoners. (On Monday, the Pentagon said the number was 39.)

It's not the first time the Guantanamo prisoners have refused food for long stretches at a time. A 2005 strike reached a peak of around 130 prisoners, at least 80 of whom dropped below 100 pounds. That effort didn't necessarily accomplish much -- many of the prisoners are still there, after all, and they recently were slapped with a new law prohibiting their transfer to U.S. soil.

History has shown that, at least in recent years, massive group hunger strikes tend to be successful at changing if not the prisoners' immediate circumstances, then at least the political dynamics of the time. But unfortunately for the Guantanamo prisoners, that's usually only the case when the people doing the striking are sympathetic, politically popular characters -- and not a group of foreigners whose prison is synonymous with the War on Terror.

Hunger strikes are usually a last resort, but they are really good at accomplishing one thing in particular: making the striking prisoners seem reasonable -- even moral -- and making their captors look evil.


Going long stretches without eating wasn't always a strategic political maneuver, though. British journalist David Beresford traced hunger strikes back to medieval Ireland, where victims of perceived injustices occasionally fasted on the doorsteps of those who wronged them.

"If the hunger striker died without having his complaint properly dealt with, the defendant was deemed to be liable and was compelled to pay compensation to the victim's family," Beresford told the Winnipeg Free Press.

Both British and American suffragettes fasted in prisons in the early 20th century, but it was their valiant service during World War I, rather than their starvation protests, that ultimately got them the vote.

But more recently, hunger striking prisoners have increasingly gotten their way.

Fasting protests became more frequent throughout the 1970s and 80s, particularly for anti-war, civil rights, and minority rights causes, as this chart from the study Hunger Strike and Nonviolent Action shows:

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Nearly 70 percent of hunger strikes occur in prison, and government entities are the target of the vast majority of them, according to research by Stephen J. Scanlan, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio University, who examined hunger strikes over the past century. Few (6 percent) of hunger strikers die. Rather, about three-quarters of these protests are called off voluntarily -- usually because demands have been met, at least to some extent. What's more, Scanlan found that nearly 76 percent of strikers get at least some of what they want.

One of the most famous, large-scale hunger strikes in recent years was the 1981 Irish republican prisoners strike in Northern Ireland, during which 10 prisoners starved to death. While their refusal to eat didn't force either the prison officials or the Thatcher government to give in to all of the strikers' "Five Demands" (among them, the right not to wear prison uniforms, to freely associate with one another, and to have one visit per week), they did make major progress toward earning more respect from prison guards.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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