EXPLAINER: What Is The Right To Life And Why Does It Matter? - RightsInfo

EXPLAINER: What Is The Right To Life And Why Does It Matter?

The right to life has been in the news  recently because of the Hillsborough Inquests and the verdict in the de Menezes case. In this post we look at how this important right is protected in practice by exploring its three main aspects. 

But first, a bit of background…

The right to life is guaranteed by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention), which is incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. It protects our right not to be unlawfully killed by the UK government or its agents (the state). It means that the Government cannot legally take someone’s life except for in a few very limited cases. It also imposes a positive duty on the state to protect life and to investigate deaths that happen when people are in their custody.

1. The Negative Duty to Refrain from Taking Life

At its simplest, the right to life is precisely that: the state cannot take the lives of its citizens. There are exceptions to this – if force is ‘absolutely necessary’ to protect others from violence, arrest people or to end riots.

Historically, the Convention has allowed states the use of the death penalty. However, 44 out of the 47 states that are party to the  European Convention on Human Rights (including the UK) abolished the death penalty when they ratified Protocols 6 and 13 to the Convention. The Protocols are agreements to amend or update the Convention.

2. The Positive Duty to Protect Life

positive duty to protect life

In addition to not taking the lives of its citizens, the state also has to take steps to protect life. For example, the state must put in place effective criminal law to deter violent crimes and mechanisms to punish people that commit these crimes. The police are often also under a duty to take steps to protect someone whose life is in danger.

When considering whether countries have breached the duty to protect life, the European Court of Human Rights takes into account ‘the difficulties in policing modern societies, the unpredictability of human conduct and the operational choices which must be made in terms of priorities and resources’.

3. The Duty to Investigate Deaths

If someone dies through the actions of the state or when in the state’s control – including when in police stations, prisons, or hospitals – the state has to investigate these deaths properly. This is to determine the cause of death and hold those responsible to account.

In December 2015, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that investigations are also important for ensuring that failing authorities learn from their mistakes. His statement was in response to a report that found that the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust had failed to investigate the unexpected deaths of more than 1,000 mental health patients in its care.

The most high-profile recent example was the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry into hundreds of unnecessary deaths in a hospital in Staffordshire, itself prompted by a human rights challenge under the right to life.

The state’s duty to investigate deaths was at the centre of the de Menezes case. The case was about the fatal shooting of the Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, by the police in 2005. De Menezes’ cousin argued before the European Court of Human Rights that her cousin’s right to life had been violated because the Crown Prosecutions Service’s decision not to prosecute any police officers involved in the shooting meant that a proper investigation of the events could not take place.


The Court found that the decision not to prosecute did not amount to the state’s failure to carry out a proper investigation and it therefore did not breach the right to life. Instead, it was because after considering all the facts, the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was not enough evidence to prosecute.

Most recently, the investigation into the deaths in the Hillsborough Disaster has concluded with a finding of unlawful killing by the inquest jury. This was found to be because of police planning failures and was not due to the Liverpool fans’ conduct.

A Fundamental Human Right

The right to life is fundamental because it underpins all our other rights. Without it, we would not be able to enjoy any of the other rights we have. The highest UK court has ranked it as ‘the most fundamental of all human rights’ and the UN Human Rights Committee has called it ‘supreme’ and ‘basic to all rights’.

For more on the right to life, see our poster and our Explainer on why the right to life matters. You can also order our bitesized human rights cards by article to read about cases involving this right.

Help us increase understanding and support for human rights in the UK.

About the Author

Rachel Sullivan

Rachel is currently a BPTC student at City University and intends to practise at the Bar of England and Wales. View all posts by Rachel Sullivan.
EXPLAINER: What Is The Right To Life And Why Does It Matter?
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