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Home Human Rights Archive for category "Right to Life"

Charlie Gard: An Ethical Analysis of a Legal non-Problem

Published on August 9, 2017        Author: 

For those with an internet connection and an interest in current affairs, the story of Charlie Gard been hard to avoid recently. A decent précis is available here; but it’s worth rehearsing.

Shortly after his birth, Charlie’s health began to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with a terminal and incurable mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. By March 2017, Charlie needed artificial ventilation, and doctors at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH) applied to the High Court for confirmation that removing that ventilation would be lawful, having judged that it was not in his best interests. This was contested by his parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates; the High Court ruled in favour of GOSH. This was confirmed by the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. During all this time, Charlie remained ventilated.

In the High Court, Mr Justice Francis said that his decision was subject to revision should new evidence emerge favouring continued treatment; in July, Charlie’s parents returned to the High Court, claiming that Charlie might benefit from an experimental treatment being offered by Professor Michio Hirano of Columbia University. However, as proceedings advanced, it became clear that Hirano’s proposed treatment had never been used on patients like Charlie, that he had neither seen Charlie nor read his notes when he offered the treatment, and that he had a financial interest in that treatment. The position statement issued by GOSH on the 24th July barely hides the hospital’s legal team’s exasperation. On the 24th July, Charlie’s parents dropped their request for continued treatment. The details of Charlie’s palliative care were still disputed; his parents wanted it to be provided at home, with ventilation maintained for a few days. The High Court ruled against this on the 27th July. Charlie was moved to a hospice; his ventilator was removed, and he died on the 28th July, a few days before his first birthday. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Charlie Gard Case: Behind the Hyperbole

Published on July 21, 2017        Author: 

This post is intended to be both a reply to Jakob Cornides’s post on the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) in the case of Charlie Gard and, relatedly, to provide clarification on several points raised in that post (and pervading content elsewhere) regarding the nature of the decisions confronting both the domestic courts and the ECtHR.

There is no need to repeat the facts underpinning Charlie’s case. They have been canvassed in considerable detail in the judgments of the English High Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It is incontrovertible that Charlie suffers from a life-threatening illness which, at this stage, requires that he be ventilated and receive artificial nutrition and hydration to survive. The available medical evidence (which Charlie’s parents dispute) indicates that he is not responsive to his surrounds. Despite declarations being made by the High Court to the effect that maintaining life-sustaining treatment is not in Charlie’s best interests nor is proposed experimental treatment, and those declarations being upheld on appeal to the UK Supreme Court, the matter persists with experts meeting this week to discuss the medical evidence.

It is beyond the scope of this post to address each of the aspects of the reasoning (and practice) of the domestic courts and the ECtHR which Mr Cornides’s post flags as being extremely problematic in the depth they deserve. Instead, I will respond to three specific issues raised by Mr Cornides, issues which together I consider reflect a wider misunderstanding of the domestic law which has been repeated by various media outlets, and which are central to the broader discussion regarding assisted dying in the United Kingdom (particularly within the context of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’)). Those issues are: Read the rest of this entry…

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Forcible “euthanasia”: the ECtHR´s Charlie Gard Decision

Published on July 14, 2017        Author: 

When – first in the Netherlands, and later in other countries such as Belgium and Luxembourg – laws were adopted to legalize euthanasia, the selling argument was that this was a decisive step forward in order to ensure everyone’s self-determination. The ECtHR’s recent decision in the case of Gard and Others v. the United Kingdom reveals quite a different reality.

The decision is lengthy and contains a lot of medical terminology, but the underlying facts are simple: a child suffers from a medical condition that the treating doctors qualify as terminal, and for which no recognized treatment exists. Not only for argument’s sake, but also because we really have no reason to believe otherwise, let us assume that that assessment is correct and has been made by experts lege artis. Yet the child’s parents place their desperate last hope in an experimental treatment, which has so far never been tested on human beings (and, to believe what is noted in the ECtHR Decision, not even on animals). That treatment would have to be carried out, either in the UK or the US, by a leading researcher and expert on this kind of therapy, who has declared his willingness to administer it even though he qualifies the chances of success as “theoretical” and, on another occasion, as “unlikely”.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Strasbourg Judgment on the Beslan Hostage Crisis

Published on April 13, 2017        Author: 

The European Court today issued a landmark right to life judgment in Tagayeva and Others v. Russia, dealing with the hostage crisis in the school in Beslan in 2004, in which hundreds of hostages lost their lives. The exceptionally detailed (and for the most part unanimous) judgment does the Court great credit, as does the nuance it shows in much of its factual assessment. (Kudos are also due to Kirill Koroteyev and the EHRAC/Memorial team representing some of the applicants). Together with the Finogenov v. Russia judgment, on the Dubrovka theatre hostage crisis, this will be a leading case on the right to life in extraordinary situations. Unlike in Finogenov, the Court here finds a violation of the preventative aspect of Article 2 – indentifying the risk engaging the positive obligation is perhaps the most innovative part of the judgment. The Court also finds violations with regard to the effectiveness of the investigation and the planning of the operation. All in all its approach is somewhat less deferential towards the state than in Finogenov. UPDATE: Ed Bates has some early comments here.

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The Curious Case of the Killing of Kim Jong-nam

Published on February 24, 2017        Author: 

The night is dark and full of terrors. But sometimes the terrors are just too damn funny. Consider the circumstances of the untimely demise of Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, assassinated in Malaysia apparently at the orders of his imperial sibling.

  • He was not just poisoned (so very old-school), but was poisoned by VX, the most potent of all chemical warfare agents, which is 100 times more toxic than sarin; less than a drop on the skin can kill you. Being poisoned at the orders of your family is one thing; your family killing you with a weapon of mass destruction is another. (Remember, though, that time when Kim Jong-un had some officials executed by anti-aircraft guns. All around nice guy.)
  • The immediate executioners were two young women, one Vietnamese and one Indonesian; they claim to have been duped into doing this by North Korean agents and that they thought they were just pulling a prank on someone; Malaysian police reject this version of events.
  • The Vietnamese woman was a failed “Vietnam Idol” contestant in 2016; a panel of judges rejected her after she sang just one line: “I want to stop breathing gloriously so that the loving memory will not fade.” The Indonesian woman wore a t-shirt with an “LOL” sign while carrying out the assassination. ROFL.
  • The most likely method of delivering the VX was not the spray or liquid on the assassins’ hands, but a drop of the toxin on a cloth which was then touched against Kim’s skin.
  • The Malaysian special forces are guarding the morgue in which Kim Jong-nam’s body is being kept, after an attempted break-in, the purpose of which may have been to tamper in some way with the corpse.
  • North Korea refuses to accept that the person who was killed was Kim Jong-nam, while at the same time requesting the surrender of the body.
  • There is apparently such a thing as a North Korean Jurists Committee. And they made a real gem of a statement on the assassination which I commend to every, erm, jurist out there. Among other things, the statement claims that (1) Malaysia violated international law by carrying out an autopsy on a bearer of a DPRK diplomatic passport, who had ‘extraterritorial right according to the Vienna Convention;’ (2) that the autopsy was an ‘undisguised encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, a wanton human rights abuse and an act contrary to human ethics and morality’; and that (3) ‘DPRK will never allow any attempt to tarnish the image of the dignified power of independence and nuclear weapons state but make a thorough probe into the truth behind the case.’ So the violation of international law and human rights is not the person’s death but the investigation. Note also the oh-so-subtle reference to nuclear weapons. Creepy/scary, but still LMAO.

Both factually and legally Kim’s assassination resembles the 2006 killing by radioactive polonium of Alexander Litvinenko in London, ostensibly by Russian agents. This is in effect Litvinenko redux, except it additionally has that very special DPRK flavour of crazy. The legal issues are more or less the same. One possible violation of international law is the infringement on the sovereignty of the territorial state. Another is the violation of Kim’s right to life – the DPRK is in fact a party to the ICCPR (recall the denunciation issue some time ago), but Malaysia (and China) are not and cannot invoke the DPRK’s responsibility directly in that regard even if they wanted to, although they may rely on customary law. There’s also the issue of the ICCPR’s extraterritorial application to the killing of a person by a state agent; I have argued that such scenarios are covered by human rights treaties, assuming that there is proof of the DPRK’s involvement in the killing, which of course remains to be conclusively established.

 

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UK to Derogate from the ECHR in Armed Conflict

Published on October 5, 2016        Author: 

At the Conservative party conference this week, the UK Prime Minister and her defence secretary announced that the UK will derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights in times of armed conflict. I have written before that such derogations – if appropriately used – can be a valuable tool in regulating the relationship between human rights law and international humanitarian law, by providing much needed clarity and flexibility. I hence have no problem with the principle of the idea – indeed, I have argued in particular that the dicta of some of the judges of UK’s highest courts to the effect that the ECHR cannot be derogated from extraterritorially are not to be followed. I do have a problem, however, with how this derogation idea is now being sold to the British public and for what purpose. In that regard, my comments in this post are caveated by the unfortunate fact that the specifics of the derogation plan are yet to be published – we know that there will be a ‘presumed’ derogation, but not from which rights and under what exact circumstances.

Let me first deal with the political salesmanship. To start with, there’s the usual (and forgivable) pandering – Theresa May thus opens her pitch by saying that “Our Armed Forces are the best in the world” and that her government “will ensure that our troops are recognised for the incredible job they do. Those who serve on the frontline will have our support when they come home.” Oh, please. By what metric exactly are the British armed forces “the best in the world”? By their tactical combat effectiveness? By their actual achievement of specific strategic goals (in which they’ve been constantly hampered by the underfunding, underequipping and wishful thinking on the part of their political masters)? By their compliance with the law of armed conflict? The Chilcot inquiry’s findings with respect to the armed forces’ performance in Basra do not exactly support the “best in the world/incredible job” label.

Read the rest of this entry…

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The ICC and Extrajudicial Executions in the Philippines

Published on August 30, 2016        Author: 

Below are two possible exam questions for the students and cognoscenti of international criminal law with regard to the possible involvement of the International Criminal Court in the ongoing campaign of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, a manifest violation of the right to life under customary international law and Article 6 ICCPR that has so far claimed almost 2,000 lives with no sign of abating (see, e.g, here and here). I would just note, by way of preface, that we have devoted a lot of attention on the blog to the recent arbitral award on the South China Sea dispute, but are yet to comment on the sheer irony of a state claiming the protection of international law while simultaneously proceeding to violate that law so thoroughly and so tragically – I imagine because the irony is so obvious, so depressing, and so familiar. We shall see whether a significant cost will be exacted internationally from the Duterte regime for its violation of the most fundamental of human rights, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, note that the Philippines have been a party of the Rome Statute since 2011 and consider – if you were the ICC Prosecutor, what would you do now? Should you intervene, how, to what benefit and at what cost? Then ponder these two little exam questions:

  1. “Despite plausible evidence that 2,000 individuals have been killed in the Philippines with the support of the government, these killings do not satisfy the ‘widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population’ chapeau requirement for crimes against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute. In the absence of an armed conflict they equally cannot constitute war crimes, even if the government rhetorically claims to be fighting a ‘war against drugs.’ Accordingly, the ICC is without jurisdiction with respect to this situation, no matter how tragic.” Discuss.
  2. “Even if the substantive elements of crimes against humanity or war crimes were met, President Duterte could not be qualified as their ‘indirect co-perpetrator.’ Shame – because we totally could have nabbed him under the ICTY/R doctrine of joint criminal enterprise!” Discuss.
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The Relationship between International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law in the African Commission’s General Comment on the Right to Life

Published on June 7, 2016        Author: 

In November 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission) adopted General Comment (GC) no. 3 on the right to life. The GC deals with a variety of issues surrounding the right to life, inter alia the death penalty, use of force in law enforcement and armed conflict, investigations and accountability, and extraterritoriality. The GC also considers the relationship between the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and international humanitarian law (IHL):

“32. In armed conflict, what constitutes an ‘arbitrary’ deprivation of life during the conduct of hostilities is to be determined by reference to international humanitarian law. This law does not prohibit the use of force in hostilities against lawful targets (for example combatants or civilians directly participating in hostilities) if necessary from a military perspective, provided that, in all circumstances, the rules of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack are observed. Any violation of international humanitarian law resulting in death, including war crimes, will be an arbitrary deprivation of life.”

This statement is interesting in respect of three elements: the concept of ‘arbitrariness’ with regard to acts of deprivation of life in armed conflict; the interpretive principle employed to connect the ACHPR and IHL; and the legal consequences arising from IHL violations when human rights law also applies. Before taking a closer look at all these points, it should be clarified that the conclusions drawn concern the IHL and human rights obligations of States, and do not necessarily extend to those of non-State actors.

Arbitrary Deprivations of Life in Armed Conflict

In the first place, the African Commission asserted that to determine whether a deprivation of life is arbitrary in armed conflict – and therefore in violation of Article 4 ACHPR – it is necessary to make reference to IHL. Such a stance echoes the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) dictum in the Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion (para 25). The relevant rules the African Commission identified are those concerning the use of force against individuals and the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack, which apply in both international and non-international armed conflicts (Articles 48, 51, 57 AP I; 13 AP II; CIHL Study). That the protection of the right to life in connection to hostilities requires taking IHL rules into account has long been affirmed by human rights treaty bodies, particularly the Inter-American Commission and Court (inter alia IAComHR Abella, para 161; IACtHR Santo Domingo Massacre, paras 211‒236; also HRCtee Draft GC 36, para 63). Thus, the African Commission’s GC 3 consolidated an established interpretive trend, according to which IHL provides the yardstick to evaluate when use of force in the conduct of hostilities amounts to arbitrary deprivation of life in violation of relevant human rights norms.

The Principle of Systemic Integration

The second point worthy of note is that the African Commission refrained from invoking lex specialis to read the interplay between IHL and human rights law. Lex specialis, both an interpretive principle and a conflict-solution technique, indicates that:

“if a matter is being regulated by a general standard as well as a more specific rule, then the latter should take precedence over the former” (ILC Fragmentation Report, para 56).

 The ICJ employed it to contend that either an IHL specific norm (Nuclear Weapons, para 25) or IHL as a legal regime (Wall, para 106) is lex specialis with regard to human rights law. The lex specialis principle has been at times employed by the Inter-American Commission (inter alia Coard, para 42; Gregoria Herminia, para 20), whereas none of the other international bodies have resorted to it. Notably, the ICJ did not invoke it in a successive case where it dealt with the interplay between the two bodies of law (Armed Activities, para 216).

Commentators have extensively analysed, debated and criticised the use of lex specialis in relation to the interaction between IHL and human rights law (inter alia Prud’homme; Hampson, 558‒562; Milanović, Ch 5). Interestingly, some scholars highlighted that in Nuclear Weapons the ICJ did not actually employ lex specialis, but rather another principle of interpretation: systemic integration (d’Aspremont and Tranchez, 238‒241; similarly Gowlland-Debbas, 361). This principle, which is found in Article 31(3)(c) VCLT, provides that in the interpretation of a treaty:

 “[t]here shall be taken into account […] any relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties”.

 I find this viewpoint particularly convincing. When the ICJ stated that:

 “[t]he test of what is an arbitrary deprivation of life […] falls to be determined by the applicable lex specialis, namely, the law applicable in armed conflict” (Nuclear Weapons, para 25),

 it actually made use of systemic integration under the guise of lex specialis (d’Aspremont and Tranchez, 238). Indeed, it interpreted a human rights provision taking into account IHL rules, which is an application of the principle of systemic integration.

International bodies have constantly employed this principle to connect IHL and human rights law rules. They have done so implicitly (HRCtee GC 31, para 11), or by expressly invoking Article 31(3)(c) VCLT (IAComHR Molina, para 121; ECtHR Hassan, para 102), or on the basis of equivalent provisions included in their constitutive instruments, such as Article 29 ACHR (IACtHR Ituango Massacres, para 179) or Articles 60‒61 ACHPR (AComHPR DRC v Burundi et al, para 70). In GC 3, the African Commission followed the same path:

 “During the conduct of hostilities, the right to life needs to be interpreted with reference to the rules of international humanitarian law.” (para 13).

 It thereby confirmed that systemic integration, not lex specialis, is the appropriate interpretive principle to operationalise the relationship between norms of IHL and human rights law.

Concurrent Violations of IHL and Human Rights Law

The last point concerns the closing sentence of the above-quoted passage, in which the African Commission affirmed that an attack causing death in violation of IHL rules amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of life. This is a remarkable statement. For the first time, a human rights treaty body made it explicit that, when human rights law norms are placed in the background to favour the application of IHL norms, a breach of the latter entails a violation of the former. A similar reasoning may be found in the Human Rights Committee’s Draft GC 36 (para 63), not yet adopted, whereas it could only be inferred from previous case law (IACtHR Santo Domingo Massacre, paras 230, 237; ECtHR Hassan, para 105, with reference to the right to personal liberty). This constitutes the logical conclusion of the interpretive choice according to which the arbitrariness of a deprivation of life in armed conflict is to be determined with reference to IHL. Of course, the presupposition is that an act is simultaneously in breach of IHL and human rights law. The use of dum-dum bullets, for example, violates IHL but not necessarily human rights law.

In my opinion, it is possible to extract a more general principle concerning the relationship between rules of IHL and human rights law. In instances of norms competition, when a prohibitive human rights law norm is placed in the background in favour of a permissive IHL norm, a violation of the prevailing IHL norm entails a corresponding violation of the background human rights law norm. The result is that the latter re-emerges, bringing along relevant normative consequences. I will just consider here the implications this has for the right to a remedy.

Remedies in Armed Conflict

Individual reparations claims for alleged IHL violations often fail when directly brought in a State’s domestic courts (e.g. Varvarin case). This owes to the uncertainty surrounding the right to reparation under IHL. Articles 3 HC IV, 91 AP I, and corresponding customary rules provide that a State must pay compensation for the breaches of IHL it is responsible for. Several scholars contend that these norms grant victims a right to reparation directly enforceable at domestic level (Kalshoven, 835‒836; Zegveld, 512). State practice and case law is inconsistent in that regard, yet most domestic courts tend to deny such an entitlement to individuals (for an account, CIHL Study, 544‒545;  Henn, 617‒623). However, when a breach of IHL also results in a violation of human rights law, victims may seek redress on the basis of the latter.

All major human rights treaties include a provision concerning the right to an effective remedy (e.g. Articles 7(1)(a) ACHPR; 2(3) ICCPR), which translates to a State obligation to provide individuals with both procedural and substantive domestic remedies (AComHPR GC 3, para. 7). Victims may seek redress for human rights violations first in domestic courts and, if that fails and where possible, with the relevant human rights treaty body. The acknowledgment that a breach of the IHL targeting rules resulting in death amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of life opens the way to individuals for obtaining redress for IHL violations via the right to a remedy under human rights law. This may expand even further. The Inter-American Court indeed held that an attack which fails to comply with IHL rules and endangers the civilian population may amount to a breach of the rights to life and personal integrity (Article 4‒5 ACHR), even if nobody is killed or injured (Santo Domingo Massacre, paras 236‒237; similarly HRCtee Draft GC 36, para 63).

Outlook

The impact of the African Commission’s GC is possibly manifold. On the international plane, it may encourage other treaty bodies to make similarly general statements, so to consolidate the interpretation that, in the conduct of hostilities, the right to life is not violated as long as relevant IHL rules are complied with. A similar construal may extend to the right to liberty and security detention of civilians in armed conflict (in this vein ECtHR Hassan, paras 105‒106). At the national level, this perspective may persuade judges to consider whether alleged IHL breaches also amount to human rights violations, which would allow victims to bring claims directly in domestic courts. Overall, the African Commission’s GC may constitute a significant contribution to strengthen the enforcement of victims’ right to reparation for both IHL and human rights violations in armed conflict.

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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…

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