The Right to Life and the Use of Lethal Force

AuthorRalph Crawshaw
Publication Date01 October 1991
Date01 October 1991
W, B.A., L.L.M.,
Former ChiefSuperintendent, Essex Police
Debates about the use of lethal force and firearms by police are usually
conducted within the context of domestic law and practice of individual
states or, where external comparisons are being made, the laws and
practicesof otherstates. It is the purpose ofthis papertocontribute to these
debates by examining the use
lethal force within the context of
international human rights law. Other relevant measures, various codes
and guidelinesadoptedby theinternational community to establish norms
and standards, will also be considered.
Central to the debate, in human rights terms, is the right to life which
is protected globally by principles of international customary law and by
various global, regional andsubject specific treaties1. All states, regardless
of treaty accession,are bound by international customarylaw and the basic
obligation on states which have acceded to human rights treaties is to
secure compliance with the treaty provisions through their
constitutional and legal arrangements.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights- proclaims the right to
life under art.3, and links it with other essential rights in the following
"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person."
Although it can be regardedas the most fundamental of human rights,
and it is expressed unconditionally in the Universal Declaration, the right
to life is not given absolute protection under treaty law whereas, for
example, the right not to be subjected to torture and the right not to be
subjected to slavery are protected absolutely. However, it is among that
small numberof human rights from which the treaties allow no derogation
by states in time of public emergency'.
Those exceptions to the general rule that the right to life shall be
protected, are expressedin treaties to delineate and limit the circumstances
under which life may be taken by, or at the behest of, the State. Lethal force
is only lawful when applied within such strictly defined limits. The right
to life, and the exceptions to that right, as expressed in one global treaty,
the International Covenanton Civil and Political Rights', and one regional
I.See for example: art.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, art.6 of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, artA of the American Convention on
Human Rights; the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
2.Adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A(111) of December 10.
3.See for example: art.15 of the European Convention on Human Rights, artA of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art.27 of the American Convention on
Human Rights.
4.Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly
resolution 2200
of December 16,1966. Entered into force March 23,1976.
October 1991 299

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