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Home Articles posted by Christof Heyns and Thomas Probert

Securing the Right to Life: A cornerstone of the human rights system

Published on May 11, 2016        Author: 

The right to life has been described as the ‘supreme’ or ‘foundational’ right. Efforts to ensure other rights can be of little consequence if the right to life is not protected.

In the broadest sense, the prohibition of the use of force except under narrowly defined circumstances, both in armed conflict and interpersonally, reflects a pre-occupation with the protection of this core human value. The criminal justice and other mechanisms of investigation are also aimed at ensuring the protection of life. The linkage of the term ‘right to life’ to a specific position in the debate about abortion in the North American context hardly does justice to the terrain covered by this concept.

The duty to respect and protect the right to life manifests itself on numerous terrains: The excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies or others (such as hit squads whose actions can be attributed to the state); the death penalty; the responsibility of states for the lives of those in their custody (for example in prisons); and the failure to exercise due diligence to protect members of the public from violence by other individuals or groups. The right to life also continues to apply during armed conflict. A violation of the right to life is irreversible. It is for this reason that it is important to underline that the protection of the right to life has two components: the prohibition of arbitrary deprivations of life, and accountability where they occur. A lack of accountability in itself constitutes a violation of this right.

The right to life is a well-established and developed part of international law, in treaties, custom, and general principles, and, in its core elements, in the rules of jus cogens. Its primacy and the central features of the prohibition on arbitrary deprivations of life are not contested. Nonetheless, in practice, life remains cheap in many parts of the world. This is true in the many armed conflicts that are raging, but also outside such conflicts, where police and others authorised or tolerated by states often use excessive force, or there is a failure to investigate homicides.

The great importance attached to this right is reflected in a flurry of recent developments in this field, aimed at setting out the norms more clearly or ensuring their better realisation. We have been pleased to be able to contribute to several of them: Read the rest of this entry…