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.

As a 2012 study of the case in the Personality and Social Psychology review found:

"Commenting retrospectively on this period, the prison governor recalled 'times when an officer would call me up and he was under so much pressure that I thought this is actually a prisoner I am talking to.'"

What's more, they ginned up significant support for Sinn Fein, the Irish republican political party. The British government was criticized for its stubbornness and cruelty, and the entire incident was seen as a black mark on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's legacy.

More recent hunger strikes have also proven moderately successful. In December, imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh ended a 49-day hunger strike in an Iranian jail after authorities agreed to lift a travel ban imposed on her 12-year-old daughter. Two Palestinian prisoners held without charge ended their hunger protest in February after Israel agreed to release them in May.

And although they weren't prisoners, a group of Cuban dissidents did successfully agitate for the release of Cuban activist Jorge Vazquez Chaviano in September after an eight-day hunger strike last year.

Media attention seems crucial to the success of prison hunger strikes, so much so that Nelson Mandela once wrote of his hunger strikes on Robben Island in the 1960s and '70s,

"In order for a hunger strike to succeed, the outside world must learn of it. Otherwise prisoners will simply starve themselves to death and no one will know. Smuggled out information that we were on hunger strike would generate newspaper stories which in turn would generate pressure from support groups."

However, hunger strikes are most effective when the protesters' predicament presents an obvious solution, something Guantanamo doesn't necessarily have. President Obama pledged years ago to close the facility, but now that the detainees are banned from the U.S. and can't be sent back to their home countries out of fears that they'll join back up with terrorist groups, so they're effectively living in a geographic and legal limbo.

And as Scanlan notes, hunger strikes work best when bystanders and third parties are mobilized to join in -- something the Gitmo prisoners don't have the advantage of, at least not yet.

And the detainees also lack another crucial ingredient of successful hunger strikes: They aren't particularly sympathetic.

Saddam Hussein's 19-day hunger strike in captivity in 2006 was mocked by Americans and Iraqis alike (as was Iraq War protester Cindy Sheehan's fasting protest that same year, especially after she blogged about sneaking a coffee "with ice cream in it.")

"No matter how powerful the person, no matter how favorable the media coverage, if the willingness of the current political leadership and context isn't there, the success of the strike is not likely to come," Scanlan said. "We still live in a context where people for the most part are not sympathetic toward Gitmo prisoners."

The latest Guantanamo hunger strike is unlikely to result in the immediate closing of the detention center for the same reason that the facility is still open in the first place: The prisoners aren't compelling enough characters to bring about a major change.

(April 4 Update:) To underscore the idea that the trial and release of the Gitmo prisoners is not a top American political priority, there was a Washington Post-ABC poll last year that showed that 70 percent of Americans say they approve of President Obama's decision to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison. From that same report, the New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal wrote "I've been told that the administration decided against taking a stand on this issue because their internal research indicated that Americans didn't care all that much. The Post poll, sadly, confirms that political diagnosis."