UN Body Adopts Progressive Interpretation of the Right to Life

Publish Date: 
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

On 30 October 2018, the Human Rights Committee (HRC) adopted General Comment No. 36on the Right to Life (under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). General Comment No. 36 (GC 36) is an important normative development for both civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR).

Members of ESCR-Net’s strategic litigation working group, led in particular by Social Rights Advocacy Centre(SRAC), were active since 2015 in helping to shape the content of this general comment through submissions, United Nations Treaty Body discussions and ongoing advocacy. In particular, in July 2015, Bruce Porter, executive director of SRAC, represented ESCR-Net’s Strategic Litigation Working Group (SLWG) at a general discussion held by the Human Rights Committee to develop the currently adopted general comment. A number of members of the SLWG and partner organizations contributed to the half-day discussion. For more details on the various contributions, including a submission to the HRC by SRAC and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, with the support of ESCR-Net, please click here. In October 2015, all members of the SLWG submitted a collective informal opinion to the HRC on the draft GC 36 with a focus on access to justice in connection with the right to life. In addition, in 2017 in a call for comments on a later draft of the GC, at least 11 organizational members of ESCR-Net independently generated submissions to the HRC. These included contributions from Al-Haq, Amnesty International, Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, Child Rights International Network (CRIN), Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural RightsInternational Commission of Jurists, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Labour, Health and Human Rights Development Center as well as a joint submission by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and others. In all, the HRC received over 150 submissions in response to their call.

The Relevance of the GC 36 for ESCR

GC 36 provides substantive guidance relevant for those deprived of the right to life by poverty, homelessness, hunger, lack of health care and other violations of social rights. The GC clarifies that the right to life is to be interpreted as the right to live with dignity (paragraph 3), and it clearly addresses State obligations in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights (paragraph 8), corporate responsibility (paragraph 22), extra-territorial obligations (paragraphs 22 & 63), special protection measures for human rights defenders (paragraph 23), non-discrimination including on the ground of socio-economic status (paragraph 61) and environment-related rights (paragraph 63).

Of particular cross-cutting relevance for economic, social and cultural rights, paragraph 26 of the GC provides that in accordance to the duty to protect life, States must take appropriate measures to address the general conditions in society that may prevent individuals from enjoying their right to life with dignity, including, deprivation of land, territories and resources of indigenous peoples, the prevalence of life-threatening diseases, widespread hunger and malnutrition and extreme poverty and homelessness. Paragraph 26 further elaborates that States must provide essential goods and services such as food, water, shelter, health-care, electricity and sanitation, and take positive measures to promote and facilitate adequate general conditions such as the bolstering of effective emergency health service and social housing programs.

Notably, the GC does not include the wording proposed in an earlier draft that sought to prevent claims relating to ‘general conditions of society’ (closely connected with ESCR) from being considered under the OP-ICCPR individual complaints mechanism. This shift in drafting was supported by strong advocacy by SRAC, other members of the SLWG and allies. The deletion of the previous wording strengthens access to justice for victims for ESCR violations, as there is no longer restricted admissibility of individual claims linked to systemic violations.

Related Jurisprudence on the Right to Life

On a related note, the HRC also delivered a decision this August in the case Nell Toussaint v Canada, in which the Committee found that in denying Ms. Toussaint access to essential health services based on her irregular migrant status, resulting in life-threatening harms, Canada violated her right to life. SRAC was a co-representative of the claimant, and ESCR-Net members filed a collective legal submission with the Committee in relation to this case.(For more details on this case, and the involvement of members, please click here). This decision, which adopts a progressive interpretation of the right to life similar to GC 36, also provides key guidance for states regarding their obligations in connection to the right to life.

Why is GC 36 significant?

UN treaty body general comments provide guidance for the interpretation of international human rights and support States in implementing treaty obligations. The HRC has not issued a general comment on the right to life in over 30 years, and GC 36 replaces GCs 6 and 14, adopted in 1982 and 1984 respectively. The new GC thus updates the normative framework on the right to life, demonstrating the evolving nature of rights.

GC 36 clearly strengthens the ability to challenge structural violations of the right to life arising from economic, social and cultural rights violations, and strongly underscores the indivisibility and interdependence of rights. It is a testament to how meaningful civil society participation in the process of norm development is essential to achieve strengthened human rights protections, and to ground evolving standards in the lived experiences of people around the world, particularly the most marginalized.

Now, it will be important for civil society to mobilize in order to create awareness regarding the GC as well as strategize and build capacity on how to utilize this guidance in order to maximize the impact of GC 36.