Header image for news printout

Expert consultation on the right to life convened by the African Commission's Working Group on Death Penalty and Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings in Africa

Meeting convened by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Working Group on Death Penalty and Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings in Africa aimed at exchange on a Draft General Comment on Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Right to Life)

The Graduate Institute Jacques Freymond Auditorium, Geneva
3-4 September 2015

Statement on behalf of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, The statement is delivered by the Chief a.i. of Special Procedures Branch, Karim Ghezraoui

Distinguished experts,
Colleagues, Friends,

I am thoroughly encouraged by the prospect of your work, as we look forward to commencing the African Year of Human Rights, and I thank the Working Group on Death Penalty and Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings in Africa for convening this meeting. It is a welcome opportunity for greater clarification and stronger advocacy regarding the right to life, a cornerstone on which the enjoyment of many other human rights depends.

The right to life is fundamental to the promises that all governments have made to their people: that they will be protected from fear and want -- in solidarity and justice, without discrimination of any kind. The African Charter, which is rooted in the shared communal values of the African continent, emphasizes the central importance of respect for the dignity of every human being, and clearly the right to life strongly underpins that. The horrors of armed conflict, unlawful killing, poverty and epidemics today underscore even more vigorously the need to bring the right to life of every woman, man and child in Africa to its rightful central focus in policy-making at every level.

The draft text before you today outlines the significance of the right to life in an impressively broad range of contexts. Notably, in keeping with the Working Group’s strong stance in favour of abolishing capital punishment, the draft general comment reiterates that the African Charter does not provide for the death penalty. My view is that the practice of judicial killing is incompatible with fundamental tenets of human rights, including the right to life and the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and States which have not yet abolished the death penalty should be taking steps towards that goal and stopping immediately its implementation.

Protection of the right to life extends broadly across a range of policy issues, as the draft points out, including the use of force by police officers, deaths in custody, and other areas where States may fail to exercise due diligence to protect life. The right to life also continues to apply in situations of armed conflict, although in such contexts what constitutes “arbitrary” deprivation of life is assessed by reference to international humanitarian law. Governments and non-State actors alike have a duty to take all feasible measures to protect civilians from hostilities: this cannot be repeated too often, but it must also be put into effect.

Taking a broad view, the draft further emphasizes that States should protect their people from the risk of death caused by the action or inaction of third parties – whether corporations or private individuals – and by circumstances such as natural disasters, famines or outbreaks of disease. States also play a key role in the enjoyment of a number of other rights which collectively underpin the condition of life itself – such as various socio-economic rights and the right to health.

Distinguished participants,

Your work on this most vital and foundational issue has obvious synergies with the Human Rights Committee’s ongoing work on a new General Comment regarding the same topic. And it can play a key role in shaping global discussions on the right to life. Indeed, today’s meeting was convened so that the African Commission’s Working Group could seek comments from other mechanisms and experts, but it is also a welcome opportunity for those other regional and UN mechanisms to take note of the ideas that have been developed by the African Commission during the earlier phases of this process.

I view today’s meeting as a vivid showcase of the Addis Ababa roadmap in action, and a strong example of how UN mechanisms can facilitate regional-to-regional exchange on important issues. As you know, OHCHR is committed to enhancing both intra-regional exchanges and global-regional interactions on human rights. As the Special Rapporteur has said, regional systems are “in many cases closer to the people concerned than the global system and, as such, have a unique ability to facilitate greater participation… the universality of human rights cannot mean only that all people from all parts of the world are held to the same standards; (and) universality also requires that people from all parts of the world have a role to play in determining what those standards are in the first place.”

I commend Christof Heyns for his participation in this process, and I very much hope to see more examples of such action-driven joint collaboration. In years to come, this kind of partnership can be a model for joint work in other thematic areas between the UN and the African system, as well as for OHCHR’s engagement with other regional mechanisms.

But to succeed, this process must extend beyond standard-setting. Normative work is never a goal in itself: it should be a means to reach and improve people’s lives. To become a tool that enables people to obtain justice for wrongs and protection for their rights, this General Comment must be applied. There should be no impunity for violations of the right to life. In Africa, as in every other region, perpetrators must be held to account for their violations, wherever and whoever they are. The people of this continent deserve no less. I count on your work to drive home these lessons.