UN Human Rights Committee publishes new general comment on the ‘right to life’

Human Rights – Right to Life
UN Human Rights Committee publishes new general comment on the ‘right to life’
GENEVA (1 November 2018) — The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, today published a new general comment: a comprehensive text providing legal guidance on article 6, the right to life.

“The right to life is the prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other human rights,” explained Yuval Shany, Chair of the Human Rights Committee. “The general comment provides a rich and authoritative statement of the obligations deriving from the right to life, which the Committee defines as ‘the supreme right.’”

The Human Rights Committee, made up of 18 independent experts, is charged with watching over the Covenant by examining the human rights situation in each of the 172 countries that ratified it. Those countries are also referred to as States parties. In addition to reviewing the human rights situation in the States parties, the Committee also examines, discusses and writes guidance on how States parties ought to interpret and apply the Covenant on a practical level. The Human Rights Committee speaks for itself, not for the United Nations.

The general comment the Committee just issued on the right to life has been in the works for more than three years, said Shany, adding that it touches on extremely complicated issues such as the relationship between the right to life and other human rights, as well as other international law norms. The Comment then identifies the obligations of states to protect life against a variety of challenges, including environmental degradation, war and extreme poverty. The general comment also addresses the duties of states to individuals located outside their territory, but affected nonetheless by their activities or activities of corporations based in their territory. The document also declares that states that have not yet abolished the death penalty should gradually move toward abolition.

The Committee is next set to write guidance on article 21 on the right to peaceful assembly, work which will begin at the Committee’s next session starting March 4, 2019.


General comment No. 36 (2018) on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the right to life*
30 October 2018 :: 24 pages
Adopted by the Committee at its 124th session (8 October to 2 November 2018).
[Excerpts; Editor’s text bolding]]

I. General remarks
1. This general comment replaces earlier general comments No. 6 (16th session) and 14 (23rd session) adopted by the Committee in 1982 and 1984, respectively.

2. Article 6 recognizes and protects the right to life of all human beings. It is the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted even in situations of armed conflict and other public emergencies which threatens the life of the nation.[1] The right to life has crucial importance both for individuals and for society as a whole. It is most precious for its own sake as a right that inheres in every human being, but it also constitutes a fundamental right [2] whose effective protection is the prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other human rights and whose content can be informed by other human rights.

3. The right to life is a right which should not be interpreted narrowly. It concerns the entitlement of individuals to be free from acts and omissions that are intended or may be expected to cause their unnatural or premature death, as well as to enjoy a life with dignity. Article 6 guarantees this right for all human beings, without distinction of any kind, including for persons suspected or convicted of even the most serious crimes.

4. Paragraph 1 of article 6 of the Covenant provides that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life and that the right shall be protected by law. It lays the foundation for the obligation of States parties to respect and to ensure the right to life, to give effect to it through legislative and other measures, and to provide effective remedies and reparation to all victims of violations of the right to life.

5. Paragraphs 2, 4, 5 and 6 of article 6 of the Covenant set out specific safeguards for ensuring that in States parties which have not yet abolished the death penalty, it must not be applied except for the most serious crimes, and then only in the most exceptional cases and under the strictest limits. [3] The prohibition on arbitrary deprivation of life contained in article 6, paragraph 1 further limits the ability of States parties to apply the death penalty. The provisions of paragraph 3 regulate specifically the relationship between Article 6 of the Covenant and the Convention on

6. Deprivation of life involves an intentional [4] or otherwise foreseeable and preventable life-terminating harm or injury, caused by an act or omission. It goes beyond injury to bodily or mental integrity or threat thereto. [5]

7. States parties must respect the right to life and have the duty to refrain from engaging in conduct resulting in arbitrary deprivation of life. States parties must also ensure the right to life and exercise due diligence to protect the lives of individuals against deprivations caused by persons or entities, whose conduct is not attributable to the State. [6] The obligation of States parties to respect and ensure the right to life extends to reasonably foreseeable threats and life-threatening situations that can result in loss of life. States parties may be in violation of article 6 even if such threats and situations do not result in loss of life. [7]

8. Although States parties may adopt measures designed to regulate voluntary terminations of pregnancy, such measures must not result in violation of the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, or her other rights under the Covenant. Thus, restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy. States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable…

9. While acknowledging the central importance to human dignity of personal autonomy, States should take adequate measures, without violating their other Covenant obligations, to prevent suicides, especially among individuals in particularly vulnerable situations, [20] including individuals deprived of their liberty. States parties that allow medical professionals to provide medical treatment or the medical means in order to facilitate the termination of life of afflicted adults, such as the terminally ill, who experience severe physical or mental pain and suffering and wish to die with dignity, [21] must ensure the existence of robust legal and institutional safeguards to verify that medical professionals are complying with the free, informed, explicit and, unambiguous decision of their patients, with a view to protecting patients from pressure and abuse. [22]…

…54. Torture and ill-treatment, which may seriously affect the physical and mental health of the mistreated individual could also generate the risk of deprivation of life. Furthermore, criminal convictions resulting in the death penalty, which are based on information procured by torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of interrogated persons, would violate articles 7 and 14, paragraph 3(g) of the Covenant, as well as article 6. [229]…

…61. The right to life must be respected and ensured without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or any other status, including caste, [250] ethnicity, membership of an indigenous group, sexual orientation or gender identity, [251] disability, [252] socioeconomic status, [253] albinism [254] and age. [255] Legal protections for the right to life must apply equally to all individuals and provide them with effective guarantees against all forms of discrimination, including multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination. [256] Any deprivation of life based on discrimination in law or fact is ipso facto arbitrary in nature. Femicide, which constitutes an extreme form of gender-based violence that is
directed against girls and women, is a particularly grave form of assault on the right to life.

62. Environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life. [258] Obligations of States parties under international environmental law should thus inform the contents of article 6 of the Covenant, and the obligation of States parties to respect and ensure the right to life should also inform their relevant obligations under international environmental law…

…69. Wars and other acts of mass violence continue to be a scourge of humanity resulting in the loss of lives of many thousands of lives every year. [279] Efforts to avert the risks of war, and any other armed conflict, and to strengthen international peace and security, are among the most important safeguards for the right to life. [280]

70. States parties engaged in acts of aggression as defined in international law, resulting in deprivation of life, violate ipso facto article 6 of the Covenant. At the same time, all States are reminded of their responsibility as members of the international community to protect lives and to oppose widespread or systematic attacks on the right to life, [281] including acts of aggression, international terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, while respecting all of their obligations under international law. States parties that fail to take all reasonable measures to settle their international disputes by peaceful means might fall short of complying with their positive obligation to ensure the right to life.