The Right to Life in International Law: Emanation of a Unitary Concept in Comparative Adjudicatory Practice

Authors Brian Sang YK

ISSN: 2521-2613
Affiliations: Doctoral Candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town
Source: Africa Nazarene University Law Journal, 2015, Issue 1, p. 1 – 40


Terrorist threats have become an increasingly common and disturbing feature of contemporary life in Africa and elsewhere. Governments have typically resorted to using lethal force in their respective law enforcement efforts to thwart terrorist activities, which has an implication on the right to life. This raises the question whether, despite differences in legal, political and geographic contexts, it is possible to identify a common approach to the right to life and permissible limitations thereof. It is the thesis of this article that despite the dissimilarity of expression in various international and regional human rights treaties, there has since emerged a unitary concept of the right to life in international law. The article begins by briefly highlighting the complementarity between the primacy of the right to life and its capacity for justifiable restriction, albeit in limited conditions. It then discusses, in turn, notions of arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life, analysing the respective Treaty texts and how they have been interpreted in practice. Following a comparative review of adjudicatory practice pertinent to the right to life, the article demonstrates that the legal elements of arbitrariness and unlawfulness regarding the deprivation of life are either essentially the same, or that there is little significant difference between them. Accordingly, the article makes the case for the emanation of a unitary notion of justifiable deprivation of life. It concludes by summarising and further elaborating the legal standards for justifiable killing, which can be instructive for law enforcement officials in their respective counter-terrorist operations.