1500 Prisoners on Hunger Strike for Basic Rights: Could Hillary Say Boo?

More than 1500 prisoners are currently observing an open-ended hunger strike in defense of basic human rights: the right not to be detained without charge, the right not to be subjected to sustained solitary confinement, the right to be visited by one's family. Two of the prisoners have been on hunger strike for more than 70 days and have been widely reported to be "near death."

Is it possible that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could say a few words about this situation?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon finally said something under pressure. So did the European Union. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have spoken up. There was a report in the New York Times; before that, there was a report in the Washington Post.

But so far, Secretary of State Clinton hasn't said boo. Is it impossible that she could say something?

What might happen if a bunch of Americans tried to put pressure on Hillary to speak up?

Some people may say: Hillary? Dream on. The prisoners that you're talking about are Palestinian. Some will recall that in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary, Hillary ran as the "more AIPAC than thou" candidate. Before that, she was a Senator from New York. At a recent conference in New York City sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Daily Forward reports, when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should work with the international community in addressing the issue of Iran rather than trying to "go it alone," people in the audience cried out: "Neville Chamberlain!" So that's what Senators from New York have to deal with, apparently.

But Hillary represents the whole country now, and as a representative of the whole country, Hillary has a different history. If you count being First Lady as being a U.S. official - and why wouldn't you? - Hillary was the first U.S. official to publicly endorse the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In his book the The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart reports that as Secretary of State, Hillary argued for President Obama to put pressure on the Israeli government to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians (p. 147). And here's what Secretary of State Clinton said about Israeli settlements in the West Bank in May 2009:

 

Speaking of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "He wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions." Talking to reporters after a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, she said: "That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly."

 

What can we conclude from this? Hillary Clinton is a political figure capable of taking different stances in response to different political situations. I know, it's shocking, isn't it?

Writing in Salon about President Obama's historic declaration that gay marriage should be legal, Glenn Greenwald makes a point that should be obvious, but seems to have escaped many people who consider themselves savvy about politics: if you support the Obama Administration no matter what it does, or oppose the Obama Administration no matter what it does, you are likely to be an impotent political actor. Sometimes the Obama Administration is good and sometimes it's bad, and the point is to increase the good and decrease the bad: "power concedes nothing without a demand."

If you want to be effective in your efforts to increase the good and decrease the bad, it helps a lot to focus on things that are plausible. Is it plausible that Hillary could speak out about the hunger strikers?

Obviously, there isn't anything essential in her being that stops her from speaking out. What about the current politics of the situation?

We all know that the U.S. has spoken out loudly about human rights abuses in Syria. But that is an "adversary regime." We all know that the U.S. has no hesitation in speaking out about human rights abuses in adversary regimes.

But consider Bahrain, a close U.S. ally. The U.S. has been very quiet as the regime cracked down on the pro-democracy movement there. But the State Department finally did speak up about the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, also on hunger strike to oppose his unjust detention. Why? Because there was pressure. Some people got off their butts and demanded that the State Department speak up.

At this writing, there are news reports that negotiations are taking place between the prisoners and Israeli prison authorities that could result in an agreement. A few words from the State Department could help tip the balance towards a more positive resolution.

I can't guarantee you that if we ask Hillary to speak up about the Palestinian hunger strikers, she will. But would it kill us to try

 

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.

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