Human Rights Committee Developing New Right to Life General Comment
On July 14, 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Committee met in Geneva for a half day general discussion to begin the process of developing a general comment on Article 6 (Right to Life) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). See UN Human Rights Committee, Draft General Comment No. 36: Article 6 (Right to Life), UN Doc. CCPR/C/GC/R. 36, 1 April 2015. The Human Rights Committee adopts authoritative interpretations of specific rights set forth in the ICCPR in the form of general comments, which guide States and other actors in understanding the scope of the right. Prior to this discussion, the Human Rights Committee adopted a note identifying issues that the Rapporteurs on the General Comment, Mr. Yuval Shany and Sir Nigel Rodley, contemplated being addressed in the general comment. The discussion on the development of the general comment, which took place during the 114th session, included oral presentations as well as the review of written submissions from national human rights institutions (NHRIs), civil society organizations, and members of academia.
Background to Article 6 (Right to Life)
During its 112th session in 2014, the Human Rights Committee decided to begin the drafting of a general comment on Article 6 of the ICCPR by revisiting and expanding upon General Comment 6 (1982) and General Comment 14 (1984), both of which are general comments on Article 6. The new general comment will be drafted in light of information obtained since the drafting of those two general comments including information gained through the Committee’s review of States’ reports and communications, as well as through the adoption of recent general comments on related issues. See, Draft General Comment No. 36: Article 6 (Right to Life), 1 April 2015. The purpose of the new general comment is to guide States and other actors in adopting measures that will enable them to fully comply with the rights enumerated in Article 6. [OHCHR]
Article 6 of the ICCPR states:
- Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.
- In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court.
- When deprivation of life constitutes the crime of genocide, it is understood that nothing in this article shall authorize any State Party to the present Covenant to derogate in any way from any obligation assumed under the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
- Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence. Amnesty, pardon or commutation of the sentence of death may be granted in all cases.
- Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.
- Nothing in this article shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant.
Human Rights Committee Discussion
On April 1, 2015, in advance of the discussion on the general comment, the Committee adopted a note identifying issues that Mr. Yuval Shany and Sir Nigel Rodley, both members of the Human Rights Committee and Rapporteurs on the general comment, considered should be addressed in the general comment. See Draft General Comment No. 36: Article 6 (Right to Life), 1 April 2015.
The note highlighted issues that should be focused upon for each subparagraph of Article 6. For example, with respect to Article 6(1), the following issues are relevant: how Article 6 protections relate to other ICCPR provisions protecting the right to life, including Article 7 (prohibition against torture and cruel/inhumane treatment), Article 9 (right to liberty and security of person), and Article 20 (prohibition against incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence) as well as to Article 12 (right to health) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and to the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); how this provision applies to the unborn, frozen embryos, and clones; the relationship between the right to life and the right to die, for example in the form of euthanasia; how this provision relates to other sources of international law, including humanitarian law, refugee law, environmental law, and criminal law; the regulation of practices such as gun control and drug and alcohol use that could be life-harming; and possible exceptions to the duty to protect life, for example suicide and abortion.
With respect to Article 6(2), the note discusses various issues that could arise with respect to the death penalty including the definition of different terms within subparagraph 2 and the relationship between this article and other ICCPR provisions as well as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG).
Issues most relevant to subparagraph three include its relationship to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). Issues to be taken into account regarding subparagraph four include clarifying the meaning of different terms such as pardon, commutation, and amnesty. Regarding Article 6(5), the note discusses the importance of examining whether this provision might be extended to persons with mental disabilities, lactating mothers, and older persons. On Article 6(6), the note discusses its relationship to the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, as well as to Article 7 on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Finally, some cross-cutting issues for possible discussion include: the relationship between Article 6 and other ICCPR provisions; derogability of the right to life during times of emergency (allowing States to adjust their obligations under the treaty temporarily in exceptional circumstances, such as armed conflicts or civil unrest); whether reservations (a declaration made by a State which allows it to exclude or alter the legal effect of certain provisions of a treaty) are allowable; the extraterritorial application of this provision (whether a State’s obligation extends to persons or situations outside of its territory); the application of this provision in situations of international and non-international armed conflict, forced disappearances, to non-State and multi-national actors; best practices concerning the implementation of Article 6; and procedural safeguards.
Other issues for consideration included: remedies for Article 6 violations, including the duty to investigate, prosecute, and provide reparations; special protection for detainees, minorities, women, children, older persons, migrants, and persons with disabilities; and the discriminatory application of the right to life.
Written Submissions from NHRIs, Civil Society Organizations, and Academia
The Committee received 115 written submissions from NHRIs, civil society organizations, and members of academia for the discussion concerning draft General Comment 36 on the Right to Life. These contributors included: family rights groups (e.g., The Center for Family and Human Rights and Family Watch International); international organizations (e.g., Amnesty International, Avocats Sans Frontières, and Human Rights Watch); penal reform institutions (e.g., Penal Reform International and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty); regional human rights commissions (e.g., the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission); reproductive rights organizations (e.g., Center for Reproductive Rights, the Danish Family Planning Association, and the Information Group on Reproductive Choice); right to health organizations (e.g., Center for Health and Gender Equity, The Program on Global Health and Human Rights at the University of Southern California Institute for Global Health, and People’s Health Movement); and women’s rights groups (e.g., the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women, Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka, and Women Deliver).
The submissions addressed a number of issues with respect to the right to life including: euthanasia and assisted suicide; whether Article 6 contains an implicit right to abortion; guaranteeing the right to safe abortions; protecting the rights of the unborn; and overlap between the right to life and the right to health, for example with respect to access to and use of sexual and reproductive services. See submissions by Equality Now and Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka.
Other contributions addressed criminal justice and due process issues such as the following: pre-trial detention and detainees’ rights; extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions; drones and targeted killings; and protecting refugees during rescue operations at sea. See submissions by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Additionally, some organizations focused on gender and child-related issues such as: the need to prevent gender-based and sexual orientation-based violence, decrease maternal mortality and morbidity, and prohibit child and forced marriages. See submission by Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women.
With respect to the death penalty, submissions highlighted that the death penalty, if not abolished, should only be “imposed when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.” See submission by Penal Reform International
Submissions also noted that the right to life encompasses the right to food, sanitation, and water, as well as protection for indigenous populations from forced evictions. See Submissions by Minority Rights Group International and Sanitation and Water for All.
Outcome of the Discussion and Next Steps
After the discussion the Rapporteurs will produce a draft of the general comment which will be presented to the Human Rights Committee for a first reading during a closed session. The text resulting from the first reading will be available to the public on the Human Rights Committee’s webpage and open for comments from interested parties until the second reading. [OHCHR]
The Human Rights Committee is one of ten committees of experts established to assess States’ implementation of specific UN human rights treaties. To learn more about the Human Rights Committee and the other human rights treaty bodies, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.