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Rights of a Person on Hunger Strike: National and International Perspectives

Hunger strikes have long been used as a form of protest, drawing attention to various social, political, and human rights issues. When an individual embarks on a hunger strike, they exercise their freedom of expression and right to protest. However, this act raises complex legal and ethical questions regarding their rights and the obligations of the state and international community. This blog post explores the rights of a person on hunger strike from both national and international legal perspectives.


National Legal Frameworks


United States


In the United States, the right to protest, including through hunger strikes, is protected under the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. However, the state's response to a hunger strike, particularly in custodial settings like prisons, involves a balance between respecting individual rights and maintaining institutional order and safety.


- Prison Context: Courts have generally upheld the right of prisoners to engage in hunger strikes as a form of protest. However, they also recognize the state's interest in preserving life and preventing self-harm. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in cases such as Turner v. Safley (1987) that prison regulations impinging on inmates' constitutional rights must be reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. This often means that forced feeding may be permissible if deemed necessary to save the individual's life.


United Kingdom


In the UK, the right to protest is protected under the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law. Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the ECHR are particularly relevant.


- Prison Context: The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has addressed the issue of hunger strikes in cases like Nevmerzhitsky v. Ukraine (2005). The court ruled that forced feeding of a prisoner on hunger strike did not amount to inhuman or degrading treatment if it was medically necessary and carried out in a humane and respectful manner.


International Legal Frameworks


United Nations


The United Nations has established various human rights instruments that provide guidance on the treatment of individuals on hunger strike.


- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. This provision is relevant in assessing the state's response to hunger strikes, particularly regarding force-feeding practices.


- UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules): These rules emphasize the importance of respecting the dignity and rights of prisoners. Rule 22 specifies that prisoners who are ill, including those who engage in hunger strikes, should be treated with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity.


European Court of Human Rights


The ECtHR has developed a significant body of case law addressing the rights of individuals on hunger strike, balancing the right to protest with the state's duty to preserve life.


- Key Cases: In addition to Nevmerzhitsky v. Ukraine, the court's decision in Ciorap v. Moldova (2007) highlighted that force-feeding a prisoner against their will could violate Article 3 (prohibition of torture) unless it is medically necessary and conducted in a manner consistent with medical ethics.


International Medical Guidelines


- World Medical Association (WMA): The WMA's Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers outlines ethical principles for the treatment of hunger strikers, emphasizing the importance of respecting the autonomy and informed consent of the individual. The declaration advises against force-feeding, stating that it is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.


Conclusion


The rights of a person on hunger strike involve a delicate interplay between individual freedoms and state responsibilities. National and international legal frameworks generally recognize the right to protest through hunger strikes but also permit state intervention to preserve life under specific circumstances. Ethical considerations, particularly in medical contexts, play a crucial role in shaping the appropriate response to hunger strikes. Ultimately, respecting the dignity, autonomy, and human rights of individuals remains paramount in addressing this complex issue.

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