What is the right to life?
Everyone has the right to life. The right to life is one of the core human rights, and is guaranteed by all general international human rights instruments.
The UN Human Rights Committee has stated:
The right to life is the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted, even in situations of armed conflict and other public emergencies that threaten the life of the nation.
In reality, however, deprivation of life occurs in many different situations. Deprivation of life includes both intentional harm as well as such harm which is foreseeable and preventable. It can occur in the contexts of criminal and gun violence, traffic and industrial accidents, environmental degradation and disasters, physical and mental healthcare, the prevalence of life-threatening diseases, armed conflicts, extreme poverty, widespread hunger and malnutrition.
Who protects the right to life?
As the State is the main guarantor of human rights, it must ensure that the right to life is respected and protected in the country.
This means that:
- agents of the State may only use lethal force in very few situations which must be exceptional, and only when it is absolutely necessary
- in cases where agents of the State are aware that someone’s life is, or may be, at risk, they have a duty to do everything reasonably possible to protect it
- if someone’s life has been taken, the State has a duty to investigate the matter
A State’s duty to protect life also includes the establishment of a legal framework to ensure the full enjoyment of the right to life, including the adoption of legal regulations to protect against all reasonably foreseeable threats emanating from public or private entities, as well as organisations or State organs and structures with the authority to protect the right to life.
Can the taking of life be justified?
Even though the right to life is one of the core rights, it is not absolute. The leading human rights documents prohibit the arbitrary deprivation of life. This means that in some exceptional cases, the deprivation of life may be non-arbitrary. For example, this could include cases of self-defence or the use of potentially lethal force for law-enforcement purposes. However, it should be noted that the use of force in such situations must be a measure of last resort, and strictly necessary to protect life from an imminent threat.
International recognition of this right
The norms protecting the right to life were formulated after the end of the Second World War when the international community decided to set a common standard to protect fundamental rights.
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, which reads as follows in Article 3:
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
The right to life is also found in all of the most important international and regional human rights conventions.