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CGHR Research Theme "The Right to Life": Accountability for violations of the right to life

last modified Mar 27, 2018 11:29 AM
Ever since beginning of CGHR’s collaboration with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which has been grouped under the theme on the “right to life”, research has underlined the significance of accountability. Whether thinking about responses to threats to the safety of journalists, the potential capabilities of ICTs for human rights advocacy, or, perhaps at greatest length, as part of its survey of Unlawful Killings in Africa, CGHR research has drawn attention to the fact that the failure of the State to pursue accountability for a potential violation of the right to life is itself a violation of that right.

Building upon this research, one of the Special Rapporteur’s longest-running projects was his involvement in the process to revise the “Minnesota Protocol”, the common name given to the UN Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary or Summary Executions. This document, adopted by the UN in 1991 had remained the principal reference point for standards concerning forensic investigations of those deaths suspected to involve the State.  However, written as it was before the time when developments such as DNA sequencing or digital photographic had become mainstream, it had grown dated.

In a large-scale project running from 2014-16 the Special Rapporteur, along with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), convened two expert drafting group to revise the document, along with a much larger Advisory Panel of eminent experts in both forensic science and international law. These experts, along with two stakeholder consultations, ensured that a broad a range of possible views were included in the process as possible. The result, the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death (2016) was finalised in 2016, and published by OHCHR in 2017.

The Minnesota Protocol can be found here

During his secondment at OHCHR, CGHR Research Associate Thomas Probert played an important role in the convening and deliberations of the Working Groups that undertook the revision. He will now continue to work with the Office, the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria, the Geneva Academy and others to devise ways of ensuring the Minnesota Protocol reaches those who have greatest need or use for it.

The Right to Life Document


In the meantime, linking this work on investigative mechanisms with another project he has been coordinating at the University of Pretoria, Dr Probert has recently published a Policy Brief with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, a Cape Town-based NGO that focusses on international and transitional justice across Africa. The Policy Brief, entitled ‘Vehicles for accountability or cloaks of impunity?’ examines the role that national commissions of inquiry can play as accountability mechanisms following violations of the right to life. It is based on research conducted by a team based at the University of Pretoria that has collated information about more than 60 commissions of inquiry investigating such violations in Africa over the past 25 years, and which has conducted on-site research visits in order closely to consider six of them, in Chad, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Nigeria.

Drawing upon the African Commission’s General Comment No.3 on the Right to Life (Article 4) (2015), as well as the revised Minnesota Protocol, Dr Probert highlights that the duty to investigate any potentially unlawful death includes all cases where the state has caused a death, either by act or omission (for example, where law enforcement officers used force that may have contributed to the death), or where it is alleged or suspected that it did so.

He demonstrates that as part of a state’s response to an alleged or suspected violation, a properly constituted national commission of inquiry can sometimes play a helpful role in fulfilling the state’s duty to investigate. But, like any other investigative mechanism, a commission of inquiry needs to meet various standards, including those of promptness, effectiveness, thoroughness, independence, impartiality, and transparency.

African Commission adopts General Comment No.3 on the right to life

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:24 AM
24th November 2015


CGHR welcomes the fact that during its 57th Ordinary Session, which concluded today in Banjul, The Gambia, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights confirmed the adoption of General Comment No.3 to the African Charter.

The General Comment does not create new law but rather provides the Commission’s authoritative interpretations of the obligations concerning the right to life, protected by Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Charter). It is designed to guide the implementation of those legal standards and to ensure the coherent application to a range of practical situations.

The full text of General Comment No.3 can be found here.

The right to life and the progressive abolition of the death penalty (Prof Christof Heyns and Dr Thomas Probert)

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:25 AM
6th November 2015


In New York yesterday, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the UN’s latest publication on the global status of the death penalty.  The book, Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives, includes a chapter co-authored by UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns and CGHR Research Associate Thomas Probert on ‘The right to life and the progressive abolition of the death penalty’.

The chapter begins from an understanding of the place of the death penalty within the scope of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (discussed in detail in CGHR’s study on Unlawful Killings in Africa). The authors briefly survey the global decline of the practice of the death penalty, before describing the evolving treatment of the question within international law.

[G]iven the shift that has taken place in state practice, it seems accurate to say that the mandate of the special rapporteur is at least progressively abolitionist. For the same reason, it is no longer necessary to state in an unqualified manner that the death penalty per se is not contrary to the requirements of international law. Over the past several years, the perspective has emerged that international law requires the progressive abolition of the death penalty. This is not to say that it requires immediate compliance, as is usually the case with civil and political rights. Instead, the drafting history suggests that international law requires at least the gradual, progressive abolition of the death penalty, as is often the case with socio-economic rights.

In general, the collection launched by the UN today conveys very much the same message.  As the Secretary General said, “I will never stop calling for an end to the death penalty…  This book contains a great deal of information – but it makes no prediction on when the death penalty will be abolished globally. That is up to us.”


Read the UN Secretary General's statement here.

Read the e-book here.


New CGHR Report on ICTs and Human Rights Practice

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:25 AM
7th October 2015

CGHR is delighted to announce the publication of a new report, 'ICTS and Human Rights Practice', by CGHR Associate Dr Ella McPherson. 

In 2014, a CGHR research team began a study of how the use of information and communication technologies affects the right to life, resulting in this report and the ICTs and Human Rights blog. This report was originally a discussion document prepared by CGHR Research Associate Dr Ella McPherson in collaboration with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and ahead of a meeting of experts held in Cambridge in February 2015. The discussion document, as well as the discussion at the expert meeting, contributed to the Special Rapporteur’s thematic report on the use of information and communications technologies to secure the right to life, presented at the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

The report will be launched on Monday 19 October at 4pm in the Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road Cambridge (room S1). All are welcome to attend. 

Read the report.

“Accountability Vacuum” for the right to life in Ukraine

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:25 AM
18th September 2015


The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, today called on the Ukrainian Government and the armed groups operating in the country to put into place a proper system of accountability in order to bringing the current cycle of violence to an end.

This call came at the end of his official ten-day country visit, on which he was accompanied by CGHR Research Associate Thomas Probert, who works as a research consultant to his mandate.

Thousands of people have died in Ukraine over the last two years, both in the context of a brutal armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and in the rest of the country. This armed confrontation, which has a strong international dimension, has taken an especially heavy toll on civilians. During his ten-day visit to the country, the Rapporteur was able to visit both sides of the ‘contact line’. He met with officials and others, and observed the effects of the shelling, raising concerns that many civilian causalities could have been avoided if parties to the conflict had taken stronger measures to mitigate such losses.

During the visit, the Special Rapporteur and his team held meetings here in Kyiv, as well as traveling to Zaporizhzhia, Mariupol, Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv and Odesa.  They met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Office of the Military Prosecutor, the Security Service of Ukraine, the Headquarters of the Anti-Terrorism Operation, the National Security and Defence Council, the High Specialised Court on Civil and Criminal Cases, the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsperson) including her National Preventive Mechanism (NPM).

In addition they also met with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, the General Consulate of the Russian Federation in Odesa, and with other international and national monitors or non-governmental organisations, civil society, and families of victims.

They crossed the so-called “contact line” and travel to Donetsk, where they met with representatives of various monitoring missions, with representatives of the ‘Office of the commissioner for human rights’ (‘ombudsperson’) of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and with representatives of the ‘bar association’. Unfortunately, despite significant efforts to arrange meetings, no other ‘officials’ of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ would meet with me. They were however able to visit some of the outskirts of the city of Donetsk, including the area surrounding the airport, and to see some of the extensive damage that had been caused, particularly to civilian infrastructure and domiciles, by heavy shelling.

“I am particularly concerned by the allegations of indiscriminate shelling, armed forces of both sides taking positions and placing artillery in civilian-populated areas (including at schools and hospitals) and the use of weapons with indiscriminate effects,” Heyns said in his statement. “There is however very little evidence that either the Government or the armed groups investigate any of these allegations – instead they point fingers at each other. Those allegations ring hollow if not contrasted with investigations on their own side.”

Global attention was drawn to Ukraine nearly two years ago when a mass demonstration in the centre of Kyiv resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people. Only a few months later groups of demonstrators participating in another mass demonstration clashed in Odessa, resulting in the deaths of at least 48 people, many trapped in a burning building. “Ukrainian authorities – former and present - had responsibilities to protect life both at Maidan and during the events of 2 May in Odesa, and their failure to do so had tragic results,” Heyns said. “Those shortcomings are only exacerbated by the subsequent failure properly to investigate the cause of these deaths in the aftermath, and to take steps aimed at redress.”

According to the expert, the legal framework for the protection of the right to life is largely in place, but its implementation seems highly problematic as there are accountability failures for violations of these norms on many levels. “The Security Service of Ukraine has been the subject of widespread allegations—and seems to be above the law,” he noted.

The Special Rapporteur made a range of recommendations to improve the level of accountability in the country. “Ukraine faces serious challenges, and violations will almost inevitably occur,” he said. “The only way forward is for all parties actively to confront that fact and to ensure that a functioning system of accountability for a common set of standards is put into place.”

You can read the full end of mission statement here.

African Commission opens consultation for General Comment on right to life

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:25 AM
14th August 2015


CGHR is pleased to note that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has made available a draft text of its proposed General Comment on the right to life (that will become General Comment No.3).

The draft is available in English and in French from links on the Commission’s homepage.

In June, the Working Group on the Death Penalty and Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings in Africa (the mechanism of the Commission which will initially work on the General Comment) held a drafting meeting in Kigali, Rwanda.  CGHR Research Associate Dr Thomas Probert was invited to attend on behalf of our partner, the Centre for Human Rights (University of Pretoria), and as the editor of CGHR’s research report Unlawful Killings in Africa, which was a central part of the background material provided to the meeting.

The current draft now open for consultation includes sections on the death penalty, the use of force in law enforcement, the use of force in armed conflict, custodial deaths and state responsibility for killings by non-state actors. It also dedicates sections to the importance of accountability in the protection of the right to life and the question of interpreting the right to life more broadly.

ISHR article by Christof Heyns and CGHR's Thomas Probert on the power of ICTs for human rights

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:25 AM
10th July 2015

In an article published by the International Service for Human Rights, CGHR Research Associate, Dr Thomas Probert, and Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, highlight the power of information communication technologies (ICTs) for human rights. 

This year, CGHR's collaboration with the Special Rapporteur has focused on ICTs. A student team coordinated by CGHR Research Associate Dr Ella McPherson assisted in the compilation of material for a discussion document ahead of an Expert Meeting in Cambridge convened by the Special Rapporteur in February. As part of the project, the student team assembled a multi-authored Tumblr blogaggregating their research into technologies, tactics, and case studies of the use of ICTs in human rights work.

In June at the 29th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur  presented his thematic report on the potential of information communication technologies (ICTs) in protecting the right to life.

Special Rapporteur report on ICTs and human rights delivered in Geneva

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:26 AM
3rd July 2015

On Friday 19 June at the 29th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions presented his thematic report on the potential of information communication technologies (ICTs) in protecting the right to life. The report explored the potential of ICTs in promotion, protection, monitoring and accountability for violations of the right to life, and called on the UN system and other international human rights bodies to “catch up” with rapidly developing innovations in human rights fact-finding and investigations.

The report can be downloaded in the six official languages of the UN. The interactive dialogue with States concerning the report, including Prof. Heyns’ initial presentation to the Council, can be watched via the UNWebTV service.

CGHR have been proudly involved in supporting the work of the Special Rapporteur over several years. In this academic year, the collaboration has focussed on the question of ICTs. A student team coordinated by CGHR Research Associate Dr Ella McPherson assisted in the compilation of material for a discussion document ahead of an Expert Meeting which the Special Rapporteur convened in Cambridge in February.

To accompany the presentation of the report, the Special Rapporteur organised a side event in Geneva, #ICT4HR: Using information and communication technologies to protect human rights. The event took the form of a panel discussion, chaired by CGHR Research Associate Dr Thomas Probert, bringing together experiences from the streets of Bahrain as well as expertise from large human rights NGOs and the ICC. The event was co-sponsored by the International Service for Human Rights, which has written a brief summary of it.

Both the report and the side event underlined the extent to which, while the affordances of ICTs should be embraced, they should not be seen as a panacea. Prof. Heyns also warned that it will be short-sighted not to see the risks: “Those with the power to violate human rights can easily use peoples’ emails and other communications to target them and also to violate their privacy,” he said. Moreover, there is a danger that what is not captured on video is not taken seriously. "We must guard against a mind-set that ‘if it is not digital it did not happen,’” he stressed.

“There is still a long way to go for all of us to understand fully how we can use these evolving and exciting but in some ways also scary new tools to their best effect,” Heyns stated, noting that not all parts of the international human rights community are fully aware of the power and pitfalls of digital fact-finding. He made several recommendations in his report, including that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights appoints a specialist in digital evidence to assist it in making the best use of ICTs.

ICTS and Human Rights Tumblr blog launched

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:26 AM
10th February 2015
ICTS and Human Rights Tumblr blog launched

©Image by Drone Wars UK


As part of CGHR's project on ICTs and the Right to Life, a student team has assembled a multi-authored Tumblr blogaggregating their research into technologies, tactics, and case studies of the use of ICTs in human rights work.

This resource is intended to be a reference point for how ICTs are being incorporated into the prevention of human rights violations as well as into fact-finding and advocacy practices. The team have categorised the material by hashtag. Short write-ups include key features and links, while longer authored pieces take a more in-depth look, considering aspects such as ownership, risks and opportunities, as well as the key consideration of pluralism – namely, who is included and who is excluded by use of the technology in question.

This is a live resource, as the student team will continue to update it as they hear of new examples.  They welcome recommendations for inclusion; please message the site via Tumblr.

#ICT4HR - Expert panel on using ICTs for human rights

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:26 AM
23rd January 2015


As Amnesty International’s recent report on Nigeria has shown, there are many powerful ways in which information communication technology, including satellite imagery, has transformed human rights advocacy.  They can be powerful tools in pushing for accountability for violations.  However they also present new challenges—for example around issues such as verification--for those working in the field.

For the last five months, as part of its research theme on the Right to Life, CGHR has been working in collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, who will be presenting a report to the Human Rights Council on these questions later this year.  In Michaelmas CGHR convened a small student team under the direction of CGHR Research Associates Ella McPherson and Thomas Probert, which has been providing invaluable assistance in the drafting of a discussion document on the subject.  In February, CGHR will host a two-day meeting of international experts, to discuss this document and make recommendations to the Special Rapporteur.

On Tuesday 10 February, at 1pm, after the expert meeting has concluded, there will be a public panel discussion in room S1 of the Alison Richard Building, West Road, Cambridge.  This will be an opportunity for a wider audience to engage with both practitioners and commentators and to explore these themes in greater depth.  CGHR will also launch the online resource which the student research team as been developing--designed to be a one-stop survey of applications and processes which harness the potential of ICTs for human rights work.

The panel will include:

  • Christof Heyns - UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
  • Christina Ribeiro - Investigation Coordinator, Office of the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court
  • Christoph Koettl - designer and editor of Amnesty International's Citizen Evidence Lab
  • Eliot Higgins - creator of the Brown Moses blog, investigating the conflict in Syria
  • Ella McPherson - CGHR Research Associate (chair)

Regional Review of the Geneva Declaration in Nairobi

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:26 AM
28th November 2014


As part of the research on violations of the right to life in Africa earlier this year, CGHR used material and research gathered by the secretariat of the Geneva Declaration, which monitors indicators of violence around the world, both in conflict setting and outside them. Over the course of 2014 the Geneva Declaration has been conducting a series of Regional Review Conferences, of which the last, on sub-Saharan Africa, was held in Nairobi this week.

CGHR Research Associate Thomas Probert was invited to the conference to present on behalf of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions as part of a panel on 'The Importance of Justice and Security Providers for Peace and Development'. In light of the Special Rapporteur's report to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, and the chapter on excessive use of force in CGHR's study Unlawful Killings in Africa, Dr Probert focused on the extent to which security providers could themselves be agents of violence, and suggested ways in which domestic legislation concerning the use of force could be brought into conformity with international standards.

More information on the Geneva Declaration, including its various Regional Review Conferences in 2014, and the anticipated publication of the latest version of its Global Burden of Armed Violence report can be found here.

Before the conference Dr Probert participated in a regional civil society workshop hosted by the Global Alliance on Armed Violence (GAAV) with the America Friends Service Committee (AFSC) on Preventing and Reducing Armed Violence to Promote Development. More than 30 civil society organisations were able to attend the meeting in Nairobi, and a further 190 participated in an online consultation beforehand. The workshop produced a statement of recommendations to the states and other agencies represented at the Regional Review Conference. The civil society statement is available here.

Pursuing Justice in Africa

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:27 AM
17th October 2014


Following its research on Unlawful Killings in Africa, CGHR is glad to partner with the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), the Centre of African Studies, the Division of Social Anthropology, the Trevelyan Fund and the Smuts Memorial Fund in supporting a multidisciplinary conference in Cambridge next year (27-28 March 2015) on Pursuing Justice in Africa. 

In recent decades, justice has been overshadowed as a subject of concern to scholars of Africa by literatures centring on rights, crime, punishment, policing and social order. This neglect of justice is striking given the increasing presence of international justice institutions, such as the International Criminal Court, on the African continent and the remarkable diversity of legal structures of justice. Across Africa complex pluralities of ‘customary’, religious, state, and transnational justice regimes interact on what is often contested terrain. 

The concept of “accountability” was addressed by various sections of the CGHR study Unlawful Killings in Africa, not least in pointing to its absence—cultures of impunity—with respect to various violations of the right to life across the continent.  Analysing the nature of accountability in African contexts remains a thematic interest of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. 

More information about the conference can be found here.  CGHR’s study on Unlawful Killings (including an executive summary) can be downloaded here.

How the death penalty is slowly weakening its grip on Africa - Dr Thomas Probert for African Arguments

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:27 AM
10th October 2014


In connection with the 12th World Day against the Death Penalty, CGHR Research Associate Thomas Probert wrote a guest post for African Arguments on the global trend towards abolition and the extent to which African states are moving away from the practice.  The piece drew from the chapter of CGHR’s recent survey of Unlawful Killings in Africa highlighting that while not the gravest threat to the right to life on the continent in terms of number of deaths, the symbolic importance of the death penalty meant that the number of African states on the cusp of abolishing capital punishment should be welcomed. Read the piece here.

Continental Conference on the abolition of the death penalty in Africa

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:27 AM
11th July 2014


Earlier this month, at Cotonou, Benin, a Continental Conference was convened to finalise an optional protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the abolition of the Death Penalty. The final communiqué of the conference (“Cotonou Declaration”) calls upon African states to adopt that Protocol.

This was the culmination of a process in which CGHR Director Sharath Srinivasan and Research Associate Thomas Probert participated almost a year ago in Pretoria (pictured). At that time a joint meeting was convened between the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions—with whom CGHR collaborates on research concerning the right to life—and the African Commission’s Working Group on Death Penalty and Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings, to consider a working draft of the Protocol.

According the recent survey of unlawful killings presented by the Working Group to the African Commission’s 55th Ordinary Session in Angola (available here), 17 African states have abolished the death penalty through national legislation and a further 25 states have not carried out an execution in more than 10 years. Despite this promising trend, the issue remains a concern on the continent (with executions in at least five countries in 2013 and death sentences in more than 20). CGHR’s recent study on Unlawful Killings in Africa (available here) dedicated a chapter to this issue.

The idea of a regional legal instrument expressly abolishing the death penalty achieved significant support from civil society: 78 human rights organisations have put their name to a Manifesto for a Protocol to the African Charter on the abolition of the death penalty (available here).

UN Special Rapporteur gives CGHR Public Lecture on Autonomous Weapons Systems

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:27 AM
19th June 2014

Yesterday the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, delivered a public lecture on ‘Autonomous Weapons Systems: The Future?’ in front of a diverse audience from across the University and beyond.  The lecture was part of a two-day programme of events developing greater collaboration between CGHR, its associates, and this UN mandate.

Prof. Heyns, who is also Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, was appointed a Special Rapporteur by the Human Rights Council in 2010.  Since then he has worked on issues ranging from the policing of demonstrations and the death penalty to military drone-strikes.  He has also been at the forefront of the debate about the challenges for the laws and ethics of armed conflict posed by the development of Autonomous Weapons Systems (formerly known as Lethal Autonomous Robots). 

For more information on the background to the event and Professor Heyns' involvement with the debate over the use of these weapons, see here.


UN Special Rapporteur visits CGHR in June 2014

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:27 AM
29th May 2014


Since 2011 CGHR has been collaborating with Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on subjects related to the right to life.  This is one of the ways in which CGHR acts as a juncture between interdisciplinary academic research and contemporary practitioners. In 2012 the Special Rapporteur convened a Meeting of Experts on the safety of journalists at CGHR, which brought together scholars, activists, diplomats, UN staff, and representatives from regional human rights mechanisms.

In June 2014, after delivering his latest report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Prof. Heyns will return to Cambridge for two days of meetings with scholars working at CGHR and across the wider University.  He will also meet with the CGHR Research Team, a group of largely graduate students that has over the past six months been examining the problem of unlawful killings in Africa.

In addition to these meetings, the Special Rapporteur will speak at two public events – a lecture addressing the impact of autonomous weapons systems on the international legal framework surrounding the right to life; and a keynote address at the launch of a CGHR study on Unlawful Killings in Africa.  Further details can be found below:


CGHR Public Lecture: Autonomous Weapons Systems: The Future?

Wednesday 18 June | 5.30pm | LG17, Law FacultyHeyns Public Lecture Event poster (rev)

In June 2013 the Special Rapporteur presented a report to the Human Rights Council on the serious implications of what at that time were referred to as Lethal Autonomous Robots (but are now known as Autonomous Weapons Systems).  Proponents of the new technology highlight that autonomous systems would be able to make life-and-death decisions with greater speed and precision, and unaffected by potentially corrupting human factors such as fear, fatigue, revenge or cruelty.  Opponents brand the new technology “killer robots” and maintain that surrendering human control over the decision to kill constitutes a serious ethical breach in the conduct of war and the protection of human rights and dignity.

The Special Rapporteur’s report warned that this technology ‘could have far-reaching effects on societal values, including fundamentally on the protection and the value of life and on international stability and security.’  He called on States to place national moratoria on the use of autonomous weapons until such time that the international community could devise a regime for their control.

This report placed the problem squarely on the international agenda, and since then it has been considered by the UN General Assembly and by the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.  In May 2014 the State parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons met in Geneva for the first inter-governmental debate on the subject. In this Public Lecture, a year after the presentation of his original report, Prof. Heyns will offer his thoughts on the developments in this field and the challenges that lie ahead in the fields of politics, ethics and international law.



CGHR Launch: Unlawful Killings in Africa

Thursday 19 June | 3.00pm | SG1, Alison Richard BuildingUnlawful Killings Launch Event poster (rev)

In 2013, the Special Rapporteur initiated a study into the incidence of unlawful killings in Africa, designed to guide his future activity, both in terms of thematic reporting, country-visits, and the search for actionable entry-points.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the right to life is severely threatened on the African continent, however very little systematic information is available to support this contention.  Efforts to curb the loss of life are often ad hoc and those with the potential or mandate to make a difference sometime lack a clear picture from which to determine priorities.

CGHR convened an interdisciplinary Research Team from across the University to conduct a broad review of the extent of unlawful killings in Africa.  The team collated information from news and NGO reporting, as well as examining structural and societal causes of such killings.  The objective was to provide an overview of the state of the right to life on the continent and a guide to those working in the field.

The findings of this Research Team will now be launched as a CGHR publication, entitled Unlawful Killings in Africa. This study will include separate chapters on different forms of unlawful killing, including excessive use of force, election-related violence, mob-justice, and armed conflict.  The Special Rapporteur will give a key-note address highlighting the importance of the subject for the future direction of his work and drawing on specific examples.  The session will offer an opportunity for those working either on issues of violence from a thematic perspective, or those working specifically on Africa to exchange views with a practitioner leading the drive to put the right to life higher on the global agenda. 

UNODC publishes "Global Study on Homicide"

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:26 AM
17th April 2014


Last week the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published its Global Study on Homicide 2013.  Building upon the research of its 2011 study, the aim is to improve understanding of the underlying pattern and trends of murder at regional, national and sub-national levels so as to support governmental efforts to address its root causes.

This clearly intersects with the research collaboration on the right to life between CGHR and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.  In 2013 Prof. Heyns and Dr Probert met with some of the UNODC's team of researchers in Vienna to discuss ways in which the separate projects overlap and opportunities for each to inform the other.  As the Study makes clear:

The right to life is a supreme normative imperative, enshrined in both constitutional and international law.  The process and criteria for protecting against the unlawful taking of life, taking steps to safeguard the lives of those within its jurisdiction, and of assigning responsibility for violent deaths within that jurisdiction are key obligations of the State, predominantly through its criminal justice system

Intentional homicide caused the death of almost half a million people (437,000) in 2012, 31% of them in Africa.  It is clear that accurate state-reporting across Africa is extremely rare, and hence the UNODC relies upon mortality statistics that are modelled by the World Health Organisation.  As has become clear during the research on unlawful killings in Africa, there is a pressing need for better information-gathering about life and death on the continent.

In analysing the circumstances, motivations and relationships that drive homicide the study classifies intentional homicide into three main typologies, including, for the first time, one for homicide related to socio-political agendas.  These are described as  'homicides that originate in the public sphere and are typically committed as an instrument for advancing social or political agendas ... people are killed for what they represent and/or for the message that such killings can convey to the general public or to specific sub-sectors.'  This section includes discussion of many motivations for killing that will be discussed in the CGHR report Unlawful Killings in Africa, including hate crime, mob-violence and vigilantism.

Attention is also given to 'unlawful killings by law enforcement authorities.'  The Study affirms the state's obligation to safeguard life by strictly limiting the use of force by state agents in accordance with relevant international standards.  Though it draws a distinction between these unlawful killings and "intentional homicide" the report does highlight that there are circumstances in which killings by law enforcement personnel would qualify as homicide, especially where the police are not pursuing law enforcement objectives.  This might include attempts at extortion that escalate into extrajudicial killings, "social cleansing" operations, the intentional killing of criminals or members of marginalized groups, or circumstances in which the police operate as a militia or death squad.

The Study also includes a substantial section on the killing of journalists, the first subject researched by CGHR as part of its collaboration with the Special Rapporteur on questions of the right to life.  According to figures produced by UNESCO, the number of journalists killed reached a record high in 2012 (with 122 killed).  In December 2013 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning such attacks and calling for States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists.

Further information about the UNODC's Global Study on Homicide 2013 can be found here.

UN General Assembly adopts resolution on the safety of journalists

last modified Jul 06, 2017 09:26 AM
18th December 2013


On Wednesday 18th December 2013 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/RES/68/163) on “The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity”.  This resolution “condemns unequivocally all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers, such as torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, as well as intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non-conflict situations”.

The Resolution calls upon States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.  States are encouraged to use legislative measures, to increase awareness regarding international human rights and humanitarian law obligations relating to the safety of journalists among the judiciary and law enforcement officers, as well as among journalists and in civil society, to monitor and report attacks against journalists; publicly to condemn attacks, and to dedicate the resources necessary to investigate and prosecute such attacks.

The Resolution also proclaimed 2 November as an International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

The safety of journalists was the first subject examined as part of CGHR’s research collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on the right to life.  In March 2012, CGHR and the Special Rapporteur, Prof. Christof Heyns, convened a Meeting of Experts in Cambridge.  The discussions at that meeting informed Prof Heyns’ report to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/20/22), which in turn was part of a growing momentum of international action on the issue, leading to the Human Rights Council’s Resolution (A/HRC/RES/21/12) later that year.  The General Assembly Resolution adopted earlier this week represents further progress in bringing these vital questions to the forefront of the international conscience.