The right to life is often described as a supreme human right, but it is clearly under pressure worldwide. The premier human rights body of the African Union on Monday released a significant new guide on how states and societies in Africa, and indeed worldwide, should protect this right.

In a far-reaching exposition of the international norms, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has set out the standards that States and others should adhere to both during war and during peace. In its new “General Comment” on the right to life, the Commission for example draws attention to the fact that:

  • the African Charter aims to ensure a better life for all by recognising a wide range of rights, and hence envisages the protection not only of life in a narrow sense, but of dignified life.

  • the vast majority of African states have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, and notes that international law requires all States that have not formally abolished capital punishment to be taking steps towards abolition;

  • the right to life continues to apply during armed conflict, where (only in the conduct of hostilities) what amounts to an arbitrary killing is determined with reference to international humanitarian law.

  • these standards should only be applied in situations of actual armed conflict, and not to other violent situations, such as internal disturbances or riots.

  • law enforcement officials may only use potentially lethal force where absolutely necessary in order to protect another life, and States must provide as such in their domestic legislation providing a framework for the use of force

  • when someone dies in custody (whether in a prison, a police vehicle or any other kind of detention facility) there is a presumption of State responsibility, and the State must prove otherwise

  • States can be held responsible in cases where a person is killed by another person, but where authorities approved, supported or acquiesced in the act, or where they failed to take appropriate protective measures.

“The African Commission hopes that this General Comment provides States, National Human Rights Institutions and civil society a useful guide to the range of application of Article 4 of the African Charter,” noted Commissioner Kayitesi Zainabo Sylvie, in her preface to the new document, and she assured stakeholders of the Commission’s full collaboration in working for the better protection of the right to life in Africa.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Prof Christof Heyns welcomed the General Comment. According to Heyns, “The African Commission has shown great leadership in adopting this document at this time, when the right to life is under great pressure. The new General Comment addresses several of the burning issues of our time in a progressive and pro-active manner which will find resonance not only in Africa but in the world as a whole.”


The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted the General Comment No. 3 during its 57th Ordinary Session held in November in Banjul, The Gambia. The full text of the General Comment can be accessed here: http://www.achpr.org/instruments/general-comments-right-to-life/.
The early drafting of the General Comment was conducted by one of the Commission’s special mechanisms, the Working Group on the Death Penalty and Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings in Africa. This Working Group decided, in July 2014, to work towards the adoption of a General Comment on the right to life as recognised in article 4 of the African Charter, and approached the Unlawful Killings Unit of the Centre for Human Rights to provide technical assistance.

Read more

click hereGeneral Comment No. 3 On The African Charter On Human And Peoples’ Rights: The Right To Life (Article 4)
pdfResource Pack' which the Unlawful Killings Unit has prepared ahead of the Working Group’s early deliberations
click hereThe New African Commission General Comment on the Right to Life Is an Important Step Forward


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