The right to life covers issues such as extrajudicial killings by State agents, imposition of the death penalty, and enforced disappearance. The right to life is protected in the core regional and universal human rights instruments, including the following:
- African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (art. 4)
- American Convention on Human Rights (art. 4)
- American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (art. 1)
- Arab Charter on Human Rights (arts. 5-8)
- Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (art. 9)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 6)
- European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (art. 2)
- Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 6)
- Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms concerning the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances
- Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty
- Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR aiming at the abolition of the death penalty
- Universal Declaration on Human Rights (art. 3)
Relatedly, violations of international humanitarian law (e.g. use of prohibited weapons resulting in death, or disregard for civilian loss of life) and of international criminal law (e.g. genocide) may also involve violations of the right to life. For example, see the Genocide Convention and Geneva Conventions.
Significant exceptions absolve States from international responsibility for an individual’s death in specific circumstances. These are most clearly enunciated in Article 2(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which reads:
2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:
a. in defence of any person from unlawful violence;
b. in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;
c. in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.
These exceptions have been quite strictly interpreted. As set out in other instruments, Article 15 of the European Convention—pertaining to derogations from international obligations in times of emergency—further provides that derogations from Article 2 are only permissible “in respect of deaths resulting from lawful acts of war”.
Further, the imposition of the death penalty—while prohibited in some areas of the world—is not yet universally considered a violation of the right to life, provided that the crime is sufficiently serious, due process rights are respected, and the method of execution is not particularly cruel.
However, inherent in the right to life are both negative and positive obligations on the State. That is, not only must States refrain from taking a life outside the circumstances described above, but they must also affirmatively act to protect against the loss of life. Such positive obligations include: training State forces to use deadly force only when necessary, taking preventive measures in the face of known risk to life (for example, to prevent an anticipated massacre by guerrilla forces or to resolve a land dispute where an indigenous community’s survival depends on the land), implementing national legislation which helps curb loss of life (such as in the regulation of hospitals and medical professionals), investigating and punishing wrongful acts resulting in death, and taking responsibility for the wellbeing of persons in State custody.
Useful online sources on the right to life include the following:
- chapter 13 of Rhona K. M. Smith’s Textbook on International Human Rights, available on Google books
- the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s General Comments No. 6: The right to life and No. 14: Nuclear weapons and the right to life
- the Council of Europe’s toolkit, Right to Life
- reports and other documents drafted by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
- INTERIGHTS’ legal manual on Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights