The Right to Life
Article 2 of The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) contains the right to life. It states that:
- Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.
In order to uphold the right to life signatories to the ECHR must ensure that the laws of their country uphold this right. The UK satisfies this requirement because both murder and manslaughter are criminal offences.
Exceptions to the Right to LifeThe right to life under Article 2 is not an absolute right. Article 2 of the ECHR includes several specific exceptions to this right. The first exception is that an individual’s right to life may be overridden if they are sentenced to death by a court following their conviction for a crime. (However, see below: The Right to Life and The Death Penalty.)
Article 2 also states that an individual may lawfully be deprived of their right to life if it is necessary to do so in order to:
- Protect any person from unlawful violence;
- Lawfully arrest an individual or to prevent the escape of an individual from lawful custody; or,
- Lawfully prevent a riot or an insurrection or rebellion against the established authority of a state.
A public authority – likely to be the police, the armed forces or prison authorities - which kills an individual in one of these circumstances will have to show that the use of force itself, and the amount of force used, was necessary and that the individual’s human rights were not thereby breached. A death in such circumstances is likely to lead to an inquest or inquiry at which the question of whether the individual’s human rights were breached will be decided.
The Right to Life and The Death PenaltyUnder Article 2 of the ECHR a lawfully executed death penalty is not a breach of an individual’s human rights. However, two later amendments (known as protocols) to the ECHR abolished the death penalty. The first amendment abolished the death penalty in all circumstances other than in a time of war; subsequently the ECHR was amended again to abolish the death penalty in any circumstances.
The UK has brought both of these amendments into force and therefore under current UK law no one can be sentenced to death.
Application of the Right to LifeThere are various situations where the state’s or a public authority’s duty to protect an individual’s right to life may be invoked. For example:
- If an individual receives death threats the state may have a duty to protect them from having these threats carried out. It is likely that the death threat must be credible and the individual at immediate risk of death for the duty to be triggered. Several children who were convicted of notorious murders have had their identities protected on the basis of this fundamental human right.
- Hospitals or medical practitioners could breach an individual’s right to life if they fail to provide a patient with life-saving treatment. This may seem obvious but there may be situations where the benefits of a treatment are doubtful – such as prolonging the life of someone who has been in a coma for years and shows no likelihood of recovering. Another example would be where treatment or medication may have little or no chance of leading to a patient’s recovery or where a baby is born very prematurely. In these cases the interests of the patient and the weight of medical opinion should be taken into account.
- When a foreign national is deported the state must take into account the foreign citizen’s right to life before sending them back to a country where they may be at risk of being killed.