Article 2: Right to life

The State must protect our lives – and investigate properly if someone dies in unexpected or suspicious circumstances.

The right to life is our most basic right. We all have the right to life and to not be unlawfully killed by another person.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – enshrined in UK law by the Human Rights Act – protects this right. The State is not allowed to violate this right – even in times of emergency – and exceptions are only allowed when ‘absolutely necessary’.

Article 2 puts specific obligations on the State – both negative (preventing public authorities taking lives) and positive (requiring them to take certain steps to protect our lives).

Protections

Article 2 requires our government to take positive steps to protect the lives of everyone in the UK. It must do this by:

  • Having and enforcing effective criminal legislation – in other words, making murder and manslaughter criminal offences, with appropriate sentencing powers for judges.
  • Requiring the police to take reasonable steps to protect a person’s life if they know – or ought to know – that they are facing real and immediate risk. However, this should not put an impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities.
  • Taking appropriate steps to prevent accidental deaths by having a legal and administrative framework in place that effectively protects life.

Prohibitions

The State must not take life.

Under limited and specific circumstances, Article 2 won’t have been violated if a death is caused by a use of force that‘s no more than absolutely necessary:

  • In self-defence or to defend another person from unlawful violence.
  • To lawfully arrest someone or to prevent the escape of somebody who has been lawfully detained.
  • To take action lawfully to quell a riot.

The State must also make sure police and security services facing situations where lethal force is possible are appropriately trained, instructed and given clear guidance on when they can use such force.

Investigations and inquests

The right to life also means there must be proper, effective investigations into all deaths caused by the State or where it appears the State has failed to protect life.

Article 2 requires such an investigation to:

  • Be independent
  • Be effective
  • Be prompt
  • Be open to public scrutiny, and
  • Involve the next of kin.

The usual way this happens is by an inquest or a public inquiry. The purpose is to bring to light any wrongdoing, neglect or systemic failings, to make sure those responsible are held accountable and that failings are not repeated and lessons are learned.

Stories of families’ fight for justice

Deepcut deaths

Between 1995 and 2002, four young soldiers – Privates Sean Benton, Cheryl James, James Collinson and Geoff Gray – died of gunshot wounds while training at Deepcut army barracks.

Their families fought for years for the answers they and their children deserved – only to be met with stonewalling, silence and suspicion.

Finally, supported by Liberty, they used the Human Rights Act to access evidence and demand the thorough investigations they had been denied for so long – and to make sure the Army learned lessons so young soldiers would be protected in the future.

Justice for the 96

On 15 April 1989, 96 Liverpool FC supporters were killed at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

For years, police blamed fans for causing the crush, feeding false stories to the press suggesting that hooliganism and drinking by Liverpool fans were the cause of the disaster.

The blaming of fans continued even after a 1990 inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Taylor found the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.

Despite this, the first coroner’s inquests into the Hillsborough disaster – completed in 1991 – ruled that all deaths were accidental.

For decades, families and survivors fought to overturn these verdicts. Article 2 was essential to that campaign.

Finally, following the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report in 2012, the original verdicts were quashed and new inquests were held, this time complying with  Article 2.

In April 2016, the new inquests found that the 96 victims had been unlawfully killed and Liverpool supporters were in no way to blame.

Without the Human Rights Act and Article 2, the new inquests may never have happened and the families and survivors of Hillsborough would never have got the justice they deserved.