The right to hunger : discussing the legal and ethical implications of hunger strike and force-feeding in prisons

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Temesvari, Maria
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Thanks to the recent hunger strikes of detainees at Guantánamo, it is increasingly clear, with regard to the most severe cases of force-feeding, that force-feeding constitutes a human rights violation. However, it remains ambiguous whether every case of force-feeding constitutes a human rights violation and whether hunger strike is a human right. There seems to be a peculiar situation in which the prisoner’s right to hunger strike clashes with the State’s countervailing interests in preservation of life and maintenance of prison security, a situation which requires careful balancing. Hunger strike and force-feeding is further a unique human rights issue because it involves an independent third party: the doctors. Doctors’ participation in forcefeeding is highly problematic because the rules of medical ethics, as formulated by the World Medical Association (WMA), unequivocally prohibit such a treatment. Medical ethics are often misinterpreted or not taken seriously in the current human rights discourse on hunger strike and force-feeding. Significantly, this leads to the unsatisfactory conclusion that only the most severe cases of force-feeding are recognised as human rights violations. Most studies on this issue are limited because they only focus on certain aspects of hunger strike or force-feeding and they do not pay particular attention to the role of medical ethics in the human rights discourse. In this dissertation it is argued that although the right to hunger strike is not absolute, force-feeding is unethical and violates the prisoner’s and potentially also the doctor’s human rights. It is thus concluded that force-feeding of hunger striking prisoners should be prohibited and international enforcement should be increased.
Second semester University: National University of Ireland, Galway
imprisonment , medical ethics, prison conditions, torture