Hunger strike

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.[4]

Such practice is labelled by the World Medical Association as being “a form of inhuman and degrading treatment”, and therefore always unethical.[1] 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?

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.


[1] WMA Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers. World Medical Assembly, Nov. 1991 (last amended Oct. 2006)

[2] 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)

[3] Jeremy A. Lazarus, Physicians’ Ethical Obligations to Hunger Strikers. British Medical Journal, June 13, 2013

[4] Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, Situation of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 2006

[5] Physicians for Human Rights, Hunger Strikes and the Practice of Force-feeding, Oct. 2013

[6] WHO, Health in prisons: a WHO guide to the essentials of prison health, 2007

[7] The International Committee of the Red Cross, Hunger strikes in prisons: the ICRC’s position, Dec. 2013



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Type of resource: Books and reports

Hunger strikes and force-feeding. In: Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the “War on Terror” (Chapter 3: Hunger strikes and force-feeding) (2013) - Hernán Reyes, Scott Allen, Leonard Rubenstein, George Annas, et al.

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

The Palestinian Prisoners Hunger Strikes of 2012: Political, Moral, Medical, and Ethical Challenges Encountered While Treating Palestinian Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Israeli Prisons (2013)
Physicians for Human Rights Israel.

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Force-feeding of prisoners and detainees on hunger strike: Right to self-determination versus right to intervention (2012) - P. Jacobs

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Interrogations, Forced Feedings, and the Role of Health Professionals New Perspectives on International Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, and Ethics (2009) - R. Goodman & M. Roseman (eds)
Harvard University Press

Open resource