In its Malta Declaration, The World Medical Association prohibits force-feeding of hunger strikers as “degrading and inhuman,” even when this is the only way to save their lives. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that lifesaving force-feeding is compatible with the state’s duty to protect the lives of prisoners. To understand how such extreme divergence of opinions has become possible, this paper offers a critical examination of the social history of prisoners’ hunger strikes, the philosophy of nonviolence, and the debate on its medicalization.
The discourse by actors, professionals, regulators, and scholars on hunger strikes is divided into three paradigms: the “communicative,” the “extreme violence,” and the “psychiatric.” I argue that another paradigm is in play, and its incorporation may enrich and balance the discourse. This is the “wounded combatant” paradigm, according to which hunger strikers are like enemy soldiers who are injured in battle.