On 8 October 2015, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Professor Christof Heyns, gave a rare lecture to the International Law Association (Victorian Chapter) during his three-day visit in Australia. Having held this UN mandate for the last five years, Professor Heyns discussed the ways in which his mandate functions and its coverage of the scope and limitations of the right to life, and provided an overview of the central themes that addressed by the mandate, including:

  • the need for law reform on the use of force by law enforcement officials in most countries in the world;
  • the development of guiding principles on the management of demonstrations for the Human Rights Council;
  • the demise of the death penalty; and
  • the emergence of new technologies that affect the right to life, both in terms of weapons and technologies that can be used to protect life.

The Mandate

In 1982, the Commission on Human Rights put forward resolution CHR Res 1982/29 to the Economic and Social Council requesting the appointment of a special rapporteur with a focus on the practices concerning summary or arbitrary executions. The mandate was established under resolution ESC Res 1982/35.

Ten years later, resolution CHR Res 1992/72 widened the mandate to include ‘extrajudicial’ as well as ‘summary or arbitrary’ executions. The amendment indicated the importance placed by members of the Commission on Human Rights to include all violations of the right to life as guaranteed by the majority of international human rights instruments (further information available here).

Professor Heyns discussed the importance of the mandate covering all countries, irrespective of whether a state has ratified relevant international conventions. He noted his most recent country visits to Gambia, Papua New Guinea, and Ukraine.

In resolution HRC Res 26/12, the United Nations Human Rights Council underscored the importance of the UN’s chief investigator to carry out their mandate in the following way:

(a)       To continue to examine situations of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in all circumstances and for whatever reason, and to submit his or her findings on an annual basis, together with conclusions and recommendations, to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, and to draw the attention of the Council to serious situations of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions that warrant immediate attention or where early action might prevent further deterioration;

(b)       To continue to draw the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to serious situations of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions that warrant immediate attention or where early action might prevent further deterioration;

(c)       To respond effectively to information which comes before him or her, in particular when an extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution is imminent or threatened or when such an execution has occurred;

(d)       To enhance further his or her dialogue with Governments, as well as to follow up on recommendations made in reports after visits to particular countries;

(e)       To continue to monitor the implementation of existing international standards on safeguards and restrictions relating to the imposition of capital punishment, bearing in mind the comments made by the Human Rights Committee in its interpretation of article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Second Optional Protocol thereto;

(f)        To apply a gender perspective in his or her work.

Professor Heyns articulated the importance of the operational duties of the Special Rapporteur as an advisor to the UN. He underscored the need for rapporteurs to secure invitations from member states where investigations are required and the challenges associated in obtaining approval for the country visits, such as governments not replying or delaying responses due to political pressure and sensitivities. One would also assume that further challenges would include the rapporteurs’ ability to maintain an independent and impartial position throughout their investigation.

Drones, weapons systems and the right to life

Professor Heyns explored the concepts of drones and autonomous weapons systems (AWS) and the complexities (both legally and morally) around how these systems have the ability to make an accurate decision concerning the use of force against human beings — both within and outside armed conflicts, such as those undertaken by law enforcement agencies. The concept of the ‘weapon becoming the warriorunderscores the legal and ethical quandaries around the new mechanisms for the use of force. Within the context of law enforcement, intervention (and not human intervention) can be used as a form of non-lethal action, but questions still exist around the ability of a machine making a judgement on when and how the intervention is to be used.

In examining the use of armed drones and AWS from a human rights approach, accountability comes to the forefront of the debate (where a violation of the right to life is evident). Otherwise, it can be classified as an empty normative system. Arguably, since the AWS will have the ability to make judgements with the ‘human’ element absent, it may be that human beings may not be held responsible for collateral damage or for circumstances where the armed drone or AWS fails its target or mission; this is due to the importance of meaningful responsibility depending on meaningful control (see also Professor Heyn’s comments earlier this year) (http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Executions/CCWApril2015.doc).

Professor Heyns further examined an AWS’ ability to accurately target legitimate objects. The ability for a machine to make life and death decisions is a growing area of debate concerning the right to life and human dignity. Questions concerning the dignity of the targeted not being affected and the machine’s decision-making process arise as areas for further review. However, it is important to note that even though the machine is making the decision, a human element will also continue to exist within the chain — whether it be the individual who created the structure of the machine, designed the machine, programmed the machine or released the machine to undertake the attack.

Professor Heyns discussed the right to life in the context of the use of force, political killings and the death penalty. The right to life is a precondition to other human rights — for example, political killings against journalists have a chilling effect on a number of other human rights. However, it cannot necessarily be assumed that the right to life is the supreme right vis-à-vis other rights, given the debate surrounding armed drones and AWS. Where the right to life is accepted as the supreme right, it is done on the condition that it is a right that is a prerequisite of all other existing rights. This can be seen in the example of armed drones and the use of force where the drones themselves are not illegal. However, when implementing them as a weapon of force, ‘they may be easily abused and lead to unlawful loss of life, if used inappropriately’ (as stated here by UN Special Rapporteur on counter terrorism, Ben Emmerson).

The presentation concluded with a number of questions from the audience. On behalf of the International Law Association (Victorian Chapter), we extend our greatest appreciation and thanks to Professor Christof Heyns for making this event possible.

This article is not intended to be a transcript of the presentation.

Laura Baykara holds a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) from Monash University and is a solicitor at Herbert Smith Freehills.

Sophocles Kitharidis is a public international law consultant to the International Affairs Division of the Thai Ministry of Justice. He is the former Vice President of the International Law Association (Victorian Chapter) and holds a Master of Laws in Public International Law from the University of Melbourne.