The Value of Life

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The right to life has been described by the UN Human Rights Committee as ‘the supreme right’. Its realisation is the precondition for the exercise of all other rights. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that: ‘Every human being has the inherent right to life.’ The right to life does not merely protect continued physical existence; according to the Committee, it protects ‘life with dignity’. Every one of the more than seven billion people on the planet, thus, equally, has the right to a life with dignity. This is the simple and radical concept that forms the foundation of human rights.

The right to life is not absolute, but it allows for the deprivation of life only under extreme circumstances. Traditional belief systems have for centuries allowed and even in some cases mandated human sacrifice, honour killings, and using force to defend the glory of their deities. Those holding power in societies around the world have not hesitated to kill in order to assert their authority. This still happens, but it is not accepted by the global community.

The increased value placed on life over time has had far-reaching consequences: while violence still destroys individuals and ravages communities, and does so unequally, the percentage of the world population who meet violent ends has decreased over the centuries. Violence remains a major problem, but it is not intractable.

Today, the lodestar of international law in this area is what I think of as the ‘protect life’ principle. This is exemplified in the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, according to which the intentional killing of one person by a law enforcement official can be considered lawful only if there is no other way to avert an imminent threat to the life of another. A life may thus not be taken merely for reasons such as the protection of property, or to assert the authority of the state. Life may only be taken intentionally in those tragic cases where it is the only way to protect life – when required to defend one’s own life or the lives of others. Each human life in that sense is of infinite value: it cannot be outweighed by anything else but life itself.

From that perspective, what is to be made of the focus placed by much of the Black Lives Matter movement on the right to life in dignity of a particular group? Given the centuries-long history of a denial of a life in dignity to black people, carried from generation to generation, it is difficult to see how the eventual point of equilibrium that the human rights project is aimed at can be achieved if special efforts are not made is to close the gap. The ideal is that all lives will matter equally, but the first priority in order to get there is to rectify the glaring inequalities, particularly in how those who exercise force on behalf of the state does it. It would be the height of cynicism to proclaim that ‘all lives matter’, not in order to state the end goal, but rather to divert attention from the urgent steps that need to be taken now, precisely in order to achieve that objective in the long run.

But this also raises questions in respect of violence worldwide, especially in the South, and the role of the technology that has brought the agonising last minute of George Floyd’s life on Memorial Day to the world. While the USA is a violent society, Latin America is widely regarded as the most violent region in the world, with Africa in the second position. Yet few cameras capture the multiple violent deaths in Mexico or the DRC and few of us know what is really going on in Mozambique right now. In South Africa, eye witnesses report how their cell phones were wiped after they had captured the deadly assault of Collins Khosa by members of the Defence Force, as part of a clampdown on Good Friday, for which there has not yet been any real accountability.

What to make of the notion of equality of all lives in a global context where there is such a great gap between the North and the South? While digital technology brings the use of excessive force   home with compelling clarity, multitudes die unnoticed by the outside world, like the proverbial tree that falls in a forest. There is a danger of surrendering to a certain numbness about global inequality, and to give up on the value of life. Life is cheap, death is arbitrary, and one is just lucky if you happen to be in a place where you live a full life and die of natural causes. Equality is pursued by ‘equalising down’.

Instead, human rights, and in particular the value it places on life with dignity, requires us to ‘equalise up’ – and to do something about all lives that are lost to violence. It demands a special focus on where it is the biggest problem, which is the South.

What is to be done in this regard? The right to life is meaningful only if there are consequences for its breach; if there is accountability. Accountability is thus an essential element of ensuring that all lives matter, also those in the South.

However, important as accountability is, it can hardly be the sole solution. A comprehensive effort to stem violence – and thus to assert the value of life – is called for, involving legal but also other approaches, such as the violence reduction approach, as reflected for example in Sustainable Development Goal 16.

What about the digital divide as a cause of global inequality? As long as some deaths go online and are remembered, but others not, their equal value will remain at best an ideal. There is little point in lamenting the level of access to technology in the North. The question for the South, also here, is how to equalise up.

As I was writing this entry, I had a Zoom meeting with some of our students from various countries in Africa who are participating in the Digital Verification Corps project. They showed us how they have verified the authenticity of videos of various scenes where excessive force has been used, in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. It struck me how a range of efforts, some small and some large, some located on the continent and some involving wider collaboration, will be required to demonstrate, or rather to assert, that these lives and these deaths matter.

Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said that a single life lost is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic. His authority in this field can hardly be disputed. As a description of how the world often views loss of life, he could not have been more accurate. As a normative statement, this statement reflects everything that human rights rejects. Each single one of the hundreds of thousands of lives that are lost every year to violence worldwide is an individual and unique tragedy.

Editor’s Note: This post forms part of our ongoing symposium on Black Lives Matter. All posts in this symposium will be available, once published, to read here.

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