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UN expert: States have duty to probe all suspicious deaths

NEW YORK (26 October 2021) – Every person's universal and absolute right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life requires that all potentially unlawful deaths be investigated, a UN human rights expert told the General Assembly today, saying that any failure to carry out a proper investigation was itself a violation of the right to life.

"Effective investigations, as required under international law, shed light on facts and stem impunity for perpetrators," said Morris Tidball-Binz, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

"They are also a cornerstone for the prevention of arbitrary killings, by providing essential evidence-based information required for addressing and resolving the root causes of any arbitrary deprivation of the right to life.

"Therefore, States have an obligation to ensure that any suspicious death is investigated according to the highest forensic standards."

The expert recalled that the 2016 Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death is today's golden standard for investigation of all cases of suspicious deaths, stressing the importance of the role of medico-legal and death-investigation systems worldwide in preventing and resolving cases of unlawful killings.

Tidball-Binz, who took up his duties last April, outlined his priorities, including a focus on femicide; deaths in custody; lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the protection of the right to life in the context of disaster management and response. "Effective death investigation systems are key in all these areas of work," he said.

"In cases of femicide, for instance, the gendered nature of the crime and its particular manifestations are frequently overlooked, resulting in its erroneous classification as an ordinary homicide and a failure to prevent recurrence.

"Likewise, most deaths in custody are preventable. However, they are seldomly investigated properly and in many countries are not investigated at all, which helps perpetuate this tragedy. Similarly, the failure to adopt adequate disaster prevention, mitigation and response measures leads in many contexts to the unnecessary loss of human life, which can and should be prevented."

The expert said he intends to address the issue of the dignified management of the dead with a view to informing a set of practical guidelines to promote the respect, protection and preservation of the human remains of those unlawfully killed, to facilitate their identification and achieving justice and reparation for the families.

During his tenure the expert will continue to monitor the implementation of all standards relating to capital punishment, which is often imposed in blatant violation of international law, including the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


The full Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death (2016), as well as further information on his drafting, are available here

* Mr. Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions is a medical doctor specialized in forensic science, human rights and humanitarian action. He is currently an Adjunct Clinical Professor in Forensic Medicine, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University, Australia and a Visiting Professor of the Department of Forensic Medicine, Ethics and Medical Law, Faculty of Medicine, University of Coimbra, Portugal and of the Department of Biomedical Health Sciences, University of Milano, Italy. Mr. Tidball-Binz previously for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), where he helped to establish and served as the first director of the Forensic Services and Unit. He also co-founded and directed the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, an organization that pioneered the application of scientific methods to investigate serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests , please contact: Mr. Alessandro Marra (+41 22 928 93 21 / alessandro.marra@un.org) or write to OHCHR-eje@un.org

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Mr. Jeremy Laurence (+41 22 917 9383 / jeremy.laurence@un.org)

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