Hunger Strikes: Individual Freedoms, State Responsibilities

In April, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails staged a hunger strike to protest the death of a fellow inmate, who they say died of medical negligence at the hands of prison authorities. At the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base, a rising number of U.S. terrorist suspects have resorted to voluntary fasting to protest their indefinite detention. In 2012 the imprisoned former prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, launched a hunger strike against alleged vote rigging by the party of the current president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Hunger strikes are usually used by (political) prisoners to communicate their distress against their confinement or the conditions surrounding their imprisonment. As frequent as the phenomenon is, there are no common rules regarding how countries can respond or best balance the conflicting interests at stake.

Governments are responsible for the general wellbeing of all their citizens, but few groups deserve more of the state’s attention than the incarcerated. International human rights norms regulate the freedom of expression and the rights to food and healthcare. The freedom of expression is an internationally recognized civil and political right requiring legitimate reasons for interference. The rights to food and healthcare originated as socioeconomic rights, but are very much connected to the basic notion of the right to life. Strong normative frameworks enjoin states to do their utmost best to ensure that these rights are honored. There are, however, no direct obligations for citizens to exercise them. Self-determination rights afford citizens the autonomy to freely and peacefully protest against government measures if they wish; hunger strikes can be seen as a form of peaceful protest, as they do not necessarily interfere with the natural order in a state. However, the right to self-determination is not absolute and there is no explicit recognized right to hunger strikes. Such a protest should not be used as a form of suicide or blackmail.

States have responded to voluntary fasting among detainees in different ways. Prison guidelines in some countries dictate that in all cases, all measures must be taken to preserve life. In such countries, artificially induced force-feeding is used when it becomes apparent that the fasting is likely to kill or seriously injure the detainee. This, however, can be viewed as a serious encroachment of the detainee’s fundamental right to dignity and his freedom of expression. In other countries, individuals are free to refuse medical treatment and cannot legally be force-fed, which can lead to death as was in the case with the Turkish political prisoner, Cengiz Soydas in 2001. The International Committee of the Red Cross opposes the force-feeding of detainees who voluntarily embark on hunger strikes. Other public international human rights organizations have yet to take a formal stand on the issue.

Hunger strikes cause the interests and responsibilities of the state and the rights of the individual to collide in multiple ways. In view of the medical, ethical, political, and legal difficulties—and the lack of international guidelines—it may be worthwhile to examine how hunger strikes can best be dealt with under the norms of human rights. The time has come for international human rights organizations to develop guidelines for dealing with hunger strikes.

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Human Rights

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