What is a hunger strike?
A hunger strike is the voluntary act to a fast that lasts for more than 72 hours by a mentally competent individual, generally as a form of pressure, or non-violent protest against different issues, such as inhuman conditions, or to obtain certain political goals or rights.[1, 2, 3]
Why are hunger strikes a human rights issue?
Hunger strikes are a human rights issue the moment force-feeding is being used by the detention centre authorities. Under international law, the 2006 report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, force-feeding practices violates the right to health.
Such practice is labelled by the World Medical Association as being “a form of inhuman and degrading treatment”, and therefore always unethical. This is mainly because even in the cases in which force-feeding is meant to benefit the hunger strikers interests, this practice is generally accompanied by use of force, threats or other forms of coercion.[1, 5] Other international organizations are also opposed to force-feeding during hunger strikes, such as the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross.[6, 7]
What are the main sources?
- WMA Declaration of Tokyo: Guidelines for Physicians Concerning Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Relation to Detention and Imprisonment (1975, 2005, 2006)
- WMA Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikes (1991, 1992, 2006)
- WHO, Health in prison: a WHO guide to the essentials of prison health (2007)
What should be done during a hunger strike?
- The first thing to be assessed is the hunger striker’s mental capacity and whether he or she is acting by his or her own will without external pressure.
- The use of force is forbidden. Detention centre authorities, as well as doctors, must refrain from practices such as force-feeding.
- All involved should respond to hunger strikers’ needs. It is essential to attempt to resolve the situation.
- International standards and guidelines can be found that should be followed during a hunger strike, the most important one being the Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikes.
This page was written by Soraya Redondo and last updated in July 2014.
 WMA Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers. World Medical Assembly, Nov. 1991 (last amended Oct. 2006)
 WMA Declaration of Tokyo: Guidelines for Physicians Concerning Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Relation to Detention and Imprisonment, Oct. 1975 (last amended May 2006)
 Jeremy A. Lazarus, Physicians’ Ethical Obligations to Hunger Strikers. British Medical Journal, June 13, 2013
 Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, Situation of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 2006
 Physicians for Human Rights, Hunger Strikes and the Practice of Force-feeding, Oct. 2013
 The International Committee of the Red Cross, Hunger strikes in prisons: the ICRC’s position, Dec. 2013