The right to life is regarded by many as an absolute right that may not be violated under any circumstances. Certainly, in appearance such a right is not set in stone. Avoidable deaths are plentiful, deliberate killings are endemic in our world. In this essay I wish to analyse the ‘right to life’; to ascertain it’s meaning, to assess it’s solidity, to investigate infringements or violations of it that are deemed acceptable in certain quarters and to identify these situations where violation can legitimately occur.
Whilst the right to life may be violated regularly (violators are not stopped by any cosmic force-field from killing) it is nevertheless widely perceived that to deny this particular right a barrier has been crossed, a morally repulsive action having occurred. Morals may vary but virtually all societies place sanctity on life. To be deprived of your life is, apparently, the ultimate infringement, removing your very being from the equation. 1 However, it can be argued that the right to life is dependent on the ‘duty’ to refrain from killing.
Two individuals in a room both have the right to life providing they each follow their duty not to kill each other. This notion is, at a glance, fine: everybody has the right to life. We all have a duty not to kill anybody else. But we live on a planet with finite resources, dependent on our ability to survive. To do this sometimes involves the deaths of others (whether by our own hand or by the lack of a resource consumed by another). So, automatically, our sacred right to life is imperilled, because we cannot always respect our duty not to kill.
To justify this conundrum we invented a multitude of derogations that allow us to kill without the accompanying guilt or punishment. Our legal frameworks, in places allow retributive killings, war is nothing other than legalised mass killing, public order and state security enable us to carry out pre-emptive killings and the area of health and quality of life (wellbeing) permits killing in preference to suffering. Coupled with our right to life is a component that dictates it is not enough to be alive, we must have the means to continue our lives.
We must have a ‘quality’ of life. The first area I will explore is that of health and quality of life. Ones health is paramount to successful living and to be deprived of full health through illness can cause all manner of problems. Recently the euthanasia debate was re-ignited by the case of Diane Pretty, a terminally ill patient seeking the right to die as an end to her suffering. If we have the right to life then we surely have the right to end it? Legally this is not the case in many countries probably stemming from the religious repugnance toward suicide.
In the Netherlands however the right to die is lawful in cases of terminal illness. This illustrates the relativism of many rights we take for being universal. Different states bestow different rights. If a right is universal then does it follow that only god has the right to end life? If so does this mean we are unable to end our own lives? The area of euthanasia is very difficult as aside from being voluntary it could also be enforced. A situation could result whereby a state could kill all terminally ill patients to save money which could then be used to treat others not terminally ill.
It is a slippery slope. None of the Human Rights Declarations allows for euthanasia so arguably it should not be legal in any state. Infringing the quality of life of a person is also an area not allowed for in the documentation. Eugenics programmes whereby mentally ill patients were sterilised so as to avoid congenital defects in future generations are illegal (though countries such as Germany, Austria and England have dabbled with the idea at various stages of history, notably during the ’30’s).
In Australia the government attempted to breed out aboriginal features by forcibly removing aboriginal children from their families and giving them to childless white couples to be raised by and married to whites (aboriginal characteristics do not recur as strongly as say Caucasian or Negroid characteristics). This was an attempted genocide and is firmly outside the bounds of morality. No doubt some white Australians might have argued that their quality of life was adversely affected by the presence of aborigines. Such actions are totally unjustified and illegal under international law.
To prefer death over suffering for the terminally ill is understandable but morally repellent so long as that life is not being artificially sustained. The second area to be explored is crime and punishment. In the world there are many states that use capital punishment for particularly heinous crimes such as murder. Often it is the case that it is a form of retributive justice. Other crimes such as treason and blasphemy can also be punishable by death. To state one has an absolute right to life is to deny the violation of that right under any circumstances.
In most of the human rights documents and proclamations, however, exist abrogations allowing for the killing of individuals mainly for reasons of crime and punishment. If in the course of legal proceedings it is deemed requisite for justice to kill a proven criminal then the killing is right, it is ‘legitimate’. The laws are there for all to read, and in participating in a society it is fair that laws should be adhered to. The European Convention on Human Rights is very specific on the legitimacy of the right to punish by death. It can also be argued that the death penalty is itself immoral or ‘wrong’. The European Convention itself is ambiguous. It argues in protocol 6, that as a form of human rights ‘evolution’ has occurred, all member states have agreed: “the death penalty shall be abolished. No one shall be condemned to such a penalty or executed. “3To exact revenge on a criminal in cold blood is seen by many as extreme, flawing the legal arguments for the sanctity of life. But the death penalty in murder cases is imposed as a result of the offender’s inability to maintain his own duty not to kill.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948) states clearly in article 29: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. ” This, emphasising the community as the bastion of development asserts that all members of any community have duties. The most fundamental, arguably being the duty not to kill others. A killer has failed in his duty and it is incumbent on the judiciary to perform their duties, which involve the protection of the remaining community, possibly involving the application of capital punishment.
By violating a person’s right to life the courts impose the violation of theirs, in the name of justice. This assumes a murderer is no longer worthy of his own right to life. For committing any lesser offence a person would normally receive a custodial sentence whether they raped, mugged, defrauded or committed arson. Why then are murderers not incarcerated as the pattern dictates? If incarceration is meant to involve rehabilitation for eventual release why is the murderer any different. What weight should be placed on rehabilitation?
Many argue that the distinction between murder and state sanctioned execution is vague, others that clear as day; one is illegal the other isn’t. However the charge of revenge is hard to avoid. Protocol 6 of the European Convention as already quoted seems itself to be unsure of the moral legitimacy of legally sanctioned executions. This is very important because we can interpret it to be a denunciation of the death penalty and it would seem to cast aspersions on other documents and legislation. Incarceration is in itself an infringement of the right to life and may lead to premature death anyway.
The absence of freedom, exercise (or very little), absence of stimulation by association (in solitary confinement) and possibly the absence of proper protections all detrimentally impact on the right to life. To fulfil your right to life you must have a quality of life (obviously any ‘life’, however restricted, has some quality as no quality would presumably imply death): therefore it would possibly be fairer (and in the interests of moral superiority) to imprison murderers, impinging upon but not nullifying their right to life. Preventative killings may occur where there is an imminent danger of loss of innocent life.
A police sniper would be justified in shooting dead a criminal about to kill hostages or any other innocent person(s), only as a last resort. If arrest and detention are options then the right to kill mustn’t be. Similarly the right to self-defence applies to any person attacked (including criminals) but must be of minimum force to be justified. It could be argued that the criminal in this instance has no right of self-defence if apprehended by policemen and which may ultimately lead to execution. The criminal though, does have the right to protect his life until legal proceedings dictate otherwise.
Some would argue, even when condemned a criminal has the right to defend his life. This is allowed for in an appeal to a higher court but failure in this avenue may mean a prisoner should agreeably forfeit his life. There is a strong case though for a the prisoner to be able to use whatever means necessary for the protection of his own life and should go kicking and fighting to death. Persuasion of the criminal to end his life (after sentencing) would be morally acceptable and would present an exception (the prisoner has the right to life, therefore the right to end it, but this decision must only be his).
Nobody can expect a condemned man to go willingly to death. In time of war the sanctity of the right to life is subjected to an intense and troubling interrogation. If innocent people have a right to life surely it would be wrong to kill them. In wartime many civilians are killed and, it can be argued, justifiably so. The attacking of civilian centres was and sometimes still is seen as legitimate during times of war by many disparate groupings. Maybe most infamous is the bombing and killing of thousand upon thousand of civilians during World War II by both allied and axis powers.
It is murky water as it can be implied that virtually any person in an enemy country is in some way contributing to the war effort. If an aggressor state embarks on an unjust war a defender nation has the right or even duty to eliminate enemy soldiers, in the interests of its own survival. Munitions workers in the aggressor state may also be considered legitimate targets, as by producing armaments they are participating or contributing to the state’s unjust actions. Does the right of defence ultimately mean we may target them? As already noted it can well be argued that it does.
Logically an aggressor army cannot remain in the field unless supported by an array of resources, from food to diesel to clothing. All who produce these resources are augmenting the unjust actions of the army and state. They then become legitimate targets and a defender nation may violate their right to life, until the aggression ceases. Many would argue to kill those civilians would be morally reprehensible and maybe so, but for a defending nation its defensive thrust must be to weaken to the point of inability the aggressor state by all means necessary for its survival and that of its citizens.
The internal machinations of the aggressor are irrelevant to the defender except regarding its war making capacity. Tyranny is no excuse or protection for the munitions workers. If we take this a little further and agree with the concept of a quality of life being inextricably linked to life itself then those essential workers of the aggressor are open to violations of this too. If the two are indeed inextricably linked does a defender state have the right to target essential workers families?
By depriving them of their wives, husbands, children etc their quality of life suffers, the effect of which is weakened morale and damage to productivity and thus the overall unjust war effort. What of poisoning water supplies, arable land, even the air they breathe? Although all three of these have occurred in wartime they generate unease. Is it right to kill many enemies to save fewer friends? Many would say so. The question of proportionality is ever salient but what in reality does it mean to a weak, cornered state in the face of a much more powerful aggressive one?
Are we to deny the former the right to defence by any means necessary? In stating an enemy is a legitimate target, what seems like a fair statement can imply a ludicrous amount of carnage and suffering. Regarding the position of an ‘aggressor’ soldier, finally cornered, outnumbered and in clear retreat, does the ‘defender’ soldier have the right of pursuit and destruction? Surely if in retreat (in itself an admission of defeat? ) the aggressor soldier if pursued becomes the defender?
The tables are reversed and it is no longer fair to kill him (especially so if surrendering). But, again it can be debated that the retreating soldier will reunite with his own forces and return to battle at a later date. To kill him in retreat seems legitimate, in the long term. In the short term it may not be so easy to justify (though, this itself may too be irrelevant). The sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war (the Argentine flagship of impressive destructive capability) was done as it sailed away from the war zone.
A British submarine intercepted and sunk the vessel with substantial loss of life. Now, the British taskforce (at the time of the sinking) was in no immediate danger from the Belgrano but it can be argued that in the near future she may have presented a deadly threat, with the resultant loss of British lives. Were the British right to sink her? Tragically, they probably were. The enemy ship was a potential danger and her sinking was not simply of physical/strategic value but psychological also, weakening Argentine resolve to continue the war.
War is ugly and to try to encode practices for combatants is ridiculous. War should not be sold with attached conventions to justify and codify it; it should be avoided at all costs. The issue of state security is an area of some complexity. As already discussed earlier, the state has a right and a duty to do what is necessary to protect its citizens. In wartime its duty extends to the destruction of the offensive capability of its enemy unless undesired. The International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, article 4, allows for:
In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the states parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation provided such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law. 4 Interpretations of this by differing groups leads to differing interpretations and perceptions of what is ‘strictly required’. Different judicial, cultural systems are bound to interpret this differently.
The western bias alleged in many leading human rights declarations, can allow us to think of ‘threats’ as being of more or less importance than maybe African or Asian cultures. Islamic Sharia law allows for the death penalty for female adulterers, a ‘crime’ of negligible gravity in the West. In Afghanistan, the former Taliban government saw religious missionaries as ‘threats to the state’ and a number of western Christians did well to escape execution for the illegal distribution of bibles. Subversive activity is related to the type of regime in power.
What may appear as subversive to one may not to another. What is recognised is that a state is entitled to do what it ‘has’ to, to protect its security. The most obvious example is espionage. Spying on a state from within is regarded as a very serious breach of national security and certain states do have the death penalty for such activities. The danger posed by spies is incalculable but nevertheless grave. In the course of legal proceedings a ‘victim’ state may execute a convicted spy. Treason, a crime often associated with espionage may also carry the death penalty.
The betrayal of secrets during times of war could have a terrible effect on the ‘victim’ state and its citizens. The issue of state security is of the utmost importance to many people, citizens and rulers alike. The dangers imposed on all by spies and traitors are exceptional and may lead to the deaths or subjugation of many. A case of treason, which remains grey, is that of deserters from an army in battle. During World War One many young (often younger than 18) men apparently deserted their comrades in the face of apparently horrific conditions.
Obviously desertions under these circumstances are very detrimental to the side suffering the losses and may jeopardise state security. However is it right to force a frightened man to fight an enemy he doesn’t want to? If, as the result of mental impairment i. e. shell shock it certainly isn’t. If the man was a conscientious objector forced to fight against his will and deserted then I would argue that it would be wrong to force him to fight. If the soldier volunteered and then deserted he may be tried for treason/desertion and executed only if found to be mentally stable.
Any sign of mental instability should negate the possibility of execution. What of economic ‘warfare’, whereby a foreign country is able to aggressively dominate another’s domestic markets removing profits to the mother country? What of trade sanctions? Tariffs and protectionism? These all may conceivably jeopardise state security (see African nations such as Angola and Sierra Leone). Social unrest, disaffection and civil disobedience may result. Occasionally a deteriorating economic situation and instability may trigger outside aggression endangering the state.
But are economic aggressors enemies to be dealt with similarly to military aggressors? Are economic spies to be executed as military equivalents could? Arguably so. Would this allow for the trial and execution of executives in multinational corporations in a third world country? The issue of public order, an area logically linked to that of state security, is one in which it is possible to construct further ‘legitimations’ for violating the right to life. As for the other areas discussed, the Human Rights Declarations do allow derogations to this ‘right’. The European Convention on Human Rights, article 2:2, states:
Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article [2:1] when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: … c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection. 5 Riots can and do occur world-wide for a variety of reasons. At their most serious they may pose a threat to national security. The state, therefore, has the ‘right’ to kill, if necessary to either protect itself or the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. The history books are full of riots ending in bloodshed at the hands of either rioters or the security forces.
Some would argue that lethal force is unnecessary and this argument has some merit. There is a vast array of anti-riot techniques and weaponry that minimise the physical danger to rioters, from watercannon, CS gas, plastic bullets, boxing off and holding rioters etc. all have been used effectively in such situations. These ‘tools’ must be the first choice to combat any civil disturbance and killing should only occur when all else has failed. The right of states o violate the right to life, as seen elsewhere, is tied to the concept of minimum force; Action that is “no more than absolutely necessary”.
Again perceptions are key. If a demonstration by a certain grouping occurs and descends into violence resulting in state intervention, who would the state be ‘allowed’ to kill? Obviously any person about to kill another could be a target but in riots they may be hard to see if present at all. The riot may be violent only to property raising a dilemma. If we assume that any person throwing missiles is intent on murder (to be struck by a brick on the head would at the least cause serious injury), then it is justifiable to shoot them and to shoot others until they desist from their dangerous behaviour.
If within an unruly mob no obvious ‘targets’ are present it becomes very difficult indeed. Are we to shoot somebody for watching the riot? For wearing a balaclava? For shouting obscenities? Again, what is justifiable? If we threaten to shoot and kill the mother of one of the ringleaders, carry out this threat and it worked to end the riot would this be justified? It would seem so. The innocence of the mother would be nullified by the results achieved. Would we be entitled to kill the weatherman before he issued a warning of impending earthquake, hurricane, tsunami because it endangered public order.
If such a warning was received, the population may well panic and in the stampede to escape many could be killed. If we killed the weatherman nobody would know of the impending danger. Thus, those killed would then have been killed by an act of God. There is the argument that to omit to inform the public of the danger itself is wrong. But is it better to let nature take its course or to intervene and cause death and injury anyway? In conclusion it is clear that states do have the right to kill under certain circumstances according to the Human Rights declarations we proclaim to adhere to.
There is an obvious problem in the idea of rights regarding their solidity. Are they absolute in which case the right to life should be inviolable or are they relative and only allowed for by the laws of our particular state? If they are absolute then only god has the right over life and death and man may not decide who should live or die under any circumstances. Such absolute rights pre-exist any state or its rulers. If on the other hand rights are simply afforded us by the magnanimity of the state then presumably the state, having invented the rules, did so in a manner conducive to its own success.
A state is not going to allow civil disturbances to endanger it. If rights are indeed absolute then who is the state to decide anything? It would certainly have no right to override the rights of others. However in the world we live in the state does have the legal right to protect itself and its citizens. The Human Rights Declarations all allow for the legal and justified killing of the innocent and guilty alike if it is in the ‘greater good’. So although we all have the right to life others have the legitimate right to kill us if necessary.