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Human Rights Committee discusses draft General Comment on the right to life

Human Rights Committee

14 July 2015

The Human Rights Committee this morning held a half-day discussion on a draft General Comment on Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the right to life, hearing statements from 40 non-governmental organizations and individuals.  

Topics discussed included death penalty, abortion, assisted suicide, right to life and international humanitarian law, right to life and economic, social and cultural rights, and right to life and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.

Article 6 states that 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.  This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court.   

The following non-governmental organizations, individuals and other organizations took the floor during the discussion: Amnesty International, Centre for Global Non-Killing, Penal Reform International, International Commission against the Death Penalty,  Quaker United Nations Office, International Commission of Jurists, Redress, Centre for Reproductive Rights, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Association of the Catholic Doctors of Bucharest, Mindy Jane Roseman, Centre for Family and Human Rights, Autistic Minority International, Safe Abortion Women’s Right, Priests for Life, Canada Silent No More, Latin American NGOs, Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women, Family & Life, WOOMB International, ADF International, European Centre for Law and Justice, Legal representative as guardian of German unborn children regarding abortions, Reproductive Health Matters, National Rights to Life Educational Trust Fund, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Pro Life Campaign, IPAS, TRIAL, Ka Lok Yip, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Milena Costas Trascasas, ESCR-Net, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, Justice for Girls International and Just Planet, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, UNAIDS, ILGA and the Coalition for Children and Family in Israel. 

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place in Room XIX of the Palais des Nations at 3 p.m. this afternoon, when it will meet with States parties. 


NIGEL RODLEY, Committee Rapporteur on Article 6, stated that today’s exercise should be approached with an open mind, but caution should also be taken regarding radical approaches.  The Committee was looking forward to hearing views of numerous non-governmental organizations.

Amnesty International said that the General Comment should underline that States had the obligation to respect the right to life of persons on, but also beyond, their territories.  Legal basis for the use of drones, criteria for targeting, remedy and reparation needed to be made public.

Centre for Global Non-Killing stressed that life was a gift to be cherished.  Protecting life was exclusively a preventive work – once it was lost, there was no proper remedy.  The right to life was deeply linked with the duty not to kill.  The admissibility of killings and wars had to be reduced. 

Penal Reform International stated that military and special courts frequently operated with increased levels of secrecy as compared to civilian courts.  Such courts should be prohibited from passing death sentences.  The definition of most serious offences in wartime needed to be clarified. 

International Commission against the Death Penalty said that, since the adoption in 1984 of the first General Comment on Article 6, many positive relevant developments towards the abolition of the death penalty had taken place.  States retaining the death penalty should periodically revise the list of “the most serious crimes”.

Quaker United Nations Office stressed the right of refusal to serve in the military, which was an institution that could lead to killing.  States should not execute death sentences on mothers who were still nurturing their children.  Best interests of the children ought to be taken into consideration.

International Commission of Jurists stated that the duty to protect under the Covenant extended to the conduct of private actors, such as private military and security companies.  The rights laid down in the Covenant had to be ensured to anyone within the power or effective control of the State party, even if not situated within its territory.

Redress said that medical and scientific developments had increased the understanding of the physical and psychological impacts of the methods used to carry out death sentences.  Various methods of execution and the death row phenomenon had been challenged as incompatible with the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment.

A Committee member asked Penal Reform International to clarify its position on whether there would be room for military jurisdiction for the most serious crimes during military conflict.  Penal Reform International responded that the key concern was over military courts issuing death penalties, which were irreversible, under dubious conditions.

Centre for Reproductive Rights urged the Committee to more fully elaborate on the specific measures States had to take to eradicate preventable maternal mortality, including by guaranteeing access to quality maternal health services.  The Committee should reaffirm that the rights in Article 6 accrued at birth and did not extend prenatally.

Society for the Protection of Unborn Children stressed that human embryos were equal members of the human species.  Denying embryonic and foetal human beings their inherent rights could only diminish the whole of humanity and hinder the search for truth that was the essence of the scientific and human endeavour.

Association of the Catholic Doctors of Bucharest stated that the conceived child enjoyed the right to life and pregnancy could not be said to pertain uniquely to the sphere of private life of the mother, there was no right to abortion. 

Mindy Jane Roseman, Lecturer at the Human Rights Programme at Harvard said that, according to international human rights treaties, human rights applied only to those born.  Restrictive abortion rules compromised women’s right to health and life.

Centre for Family and Human Rights stated that there was no legal basis in the text or negotiations of the Covenant or any other United Nations treaty for any right to abortion under any circumstance, nor could it be deemed medically necessary.

Autistic Minority International asked why disability-selective abortions should continue to be condoned.  Pre-natal screenings and disability-selective abortions amounted to eugenics against disabled minorities. 

Safe Abortion Women’s Rights stated that the discussion of the right to life should not be hijacked by calls to support the right to life of embryos in disregard of the consequences for the lives of living children and mothers. 

Priests for Life stressed that rights were not awarded and could not be denied by an outside entity.  Selective exclusion of the right to life in the case of abortion would impact the right to life of all.

Canada Silent No More said that the truth was that human life began at fertilization and not at birth.  Children in utero were members of the human family and had all rights no matter how small.  Abortion was not a safe procedure for women or unborn children.

Latin American NGOs stated that the overwhelming majority of non-governmental organizations supported the rights of unborn children from the moment of conception.  Science was unequivocal on the issue of when life was started.

Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women noted that the right of women to life was restricted by policies, practices, mindset and traditions.  Universal access to affordable healthcare was needed to ensure a continuum of quality care across the lifecycle.

Family & Life believed that Article 6(5) unquestionably protected the right to life of the unborn child in the context of the death penalty.  Article 6 did not in any way include a right to abortion. 

WOOMB International said that the Committee had no authority to remove legal protection from the unborn or the suicidal. There were no legal provisions for killings of unborn children or suicidal persons.

ADF International stressed that the right to life should start as soon as the life was created, which was at the moment of fertilization.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly recognized the child before birth as a rights-bearing person.  No international human rights treaty mentioned a “right to die”.

European Centre for Law and Justice stated that the individual human life was a continuum beginning at conception and advancing in stages until the natural death.  It was important to maintain a firm ban on infanticide, now a tolerated practice in certain cultures.

Legal representative as guardian of German unborn children regarding abortions said that many mothers undergoing an abortions often suffered for decades afterwards.  What reason could be used to justify the killing of a baby just before it was born?

Reproductive Health Matters stressed that protections under Article 6 could not be extended prenatally.  Discriminatory stereotypes in many societies had led to criminalization of abortion in many societies, violating women’s rights.

National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund believed that the right to life should include the unborn as they were living organisms.  Killing an unborn foetus was discriminatory on numerous grounds, including age, size and location. 

International Humanist and Ethical Union emphasized that international human rights instruments protecting the right to life did not extend that protection to foetuses or embryos.  Women should not be prevented from accessing health services by professionals exercising their conscientious objection.

Pro Life Campaign noted that there was no right to abortion in international human rights law.  The Committee had regrettably criticized Ireland for not expanding the availability of abortion.  The unborn child was a living human being from the moment of fertilisaiton.

IPAS recognized the fundamental nature of the human right to life, the exercise of which was essential for the exercise of all other rights.  Abortion restrictions discriminated against women by criminalizing a health care procedure that only women needed. 
Centre for Reproductive Rights, responding to a question by a Committee Member, said that World Health Organization statistics showed that legal restrictions on abortions did not decrease abortions rates.  Deaths due to unsafe abortions counted for 13 per cent of all maternal deaths.

IPAS, in response to another question by the Expert, stated that there were 60,000 unsafe abortions in Bolivia, many of whom ended up killing the woman.  

TRIAL said that States had to ensure that gross violations of the right to life were sanctioned, taking into account their extreme seriousness.  Those who committed gross violations of the right to life should not benefit from amnesty provisions or rules on immunity.  The Committee had to harmonise its case law regarding reparations.

Ka Lok Yip, a PhD candidate, stated that equating the meaning of “arbitrary” deprivation of life in armed conflict to compliance with the relevant international humanitarian law rules drastically reduced the large and complex right to life in Article 6. 

International Fellowship of Reconciliation believed that the Committee should stick closely to what could be justified from its existing jurisprudence.  States with obligatory military services should provide non-punitive alternatives to those who had conscientious objections to it. 

Milena Costas Trascasas, an independent researcher, said that some States parties continued to question the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties.  Could effective control over means used to commit violations possibly be a new jurisdictional link to explore?  There was a need to reaffirm the United Nations 1990 Basic Principles on the Use of Force, in particular those limiting the use of lethal force.

A Committee Member asked TRIAL to what extent, in its opinion, mechanisms of transitional justice, such as truth and reconciliation commissions, should be taken into consideration.  In response, TRIAL said it supported transitional justice processes in a number of countries.  It was not opposed to all amnesty laws, but gross and systematic violations of the right to life should not be subject to amnesty.

ESCR-Net believed that a new General Comment provided an opportunity to address some issues of inequality.  Numerous most egregious violations of the right to life came from States’ failure to protect their citizens from social and economic deprivation.  The Committee had justly recognized that Article 6 required positive measures.

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life said that the first 1,000 days of life, continuous care for mothers and babies were of paramount importance.  The first 1,000 days of life, from conception to second birthday, shaped a human being.  Care throughout pregnancy greatly affected the life of a child.  Most new-born deaths were preventable.

Justice for Girls International and Just Planet stressed that climate change was one of the largest threats to life and children were disproportionately affected by it.  Every year, at least 150,000 people died because of climate change; more than 80 per ent of those were children.  The Committee had to respond to that unfolding catastrophe. 

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights stressed the indivisibility, interdependence and inter-relationship of all human rights in line with the principles expressed in the 1993 Vienna Declaration.  The right to life included obligations to ensure non-discriminatory access to adequate food.  Such interpretation of the right to life should be made more explicit in the next General Comment.

UNAIDS recalled that the right to life should not be seen narrowly.  Some 39 million people had died thus far from AIDS-related illnesses; the treatment gap remained 19 million as of 2015.  States could greatly reduce HIV epidemics by ensuring access of all to affordable treatment.  States should decriminalize same-sex conduct between consenting adults.

Responding to a question by a Committee Member, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights said that the quoted jurisprudence was taken from the Human Rights Committee jurisprudence.  Jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was also valuable in that regard.

International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association said that it was crucial that the General Comment reflected that discrimination lay at the core of right to life violations.  Laws used to punish individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity continued to exist in almost 80 countries.  Access to legal and safe treatment for trans persons and suicide prevention should be addressed as well.

Coalition for Children and Family in Israel said that the right to life in Israel was being denied on a daily basis.  Children were removed from school without seeing their parents, and such stories were being gagged.  The only human rights defender speaking for children’s rights was currently under arrest.  The Committee should urge Israel to secure an independent Ombudsman, as all Ombudsmen were Government-run. 

NIGEL RODLEY, Committee Rapporteur for Article 6, in closing remarks, said that the open session was a valuable exercise which had covered a lot of ground.  A whole range of issues, from practical to deeply conceptual and political, had been identified, through thoughtful and largely respectful contributions by civil society from all over the world.  The opinions expressed and written submissions submitted would certainly be taken into consideration by Mr. Rodley and Mr. Yuval Shany when drafting the General Comment. 

FABIAN OMAR SALVIOLI, Committee Chairperson, said that 40 different entities had spoken today, and 115 written documents had been submitted, which demonstrated the importance of today’s theme to the global community.  The previous General Comment on Article 6 was fairly old by now, and it was timely to open new discussions.  The rationale for General Comments was to provide States parties with guidance.  The next step would be preparation of a draft General Comment, which would go through the first reading and then be sent to States and civil society organizations for their feedback.


For use of the information media; not an official record

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