Everyone has the right to life. This means that agents of the state must not only avoid the unnecessary taking of life, but must also actively protect it and investigate any case of unnatural death. 

This means that:

  • agents of the state may only use lethal force in very few occasions which must be exceptional, and only where it is absolutely necessary
  • in cases where agents of the state are aware that someone’s life is, or may be, at risk, they have a duty to do everything reasonably possible to protect it
  • if someone’s life has been taken, the State has a duty to investigate it

Learn more about:

Use of lethal force by agents of the state

General principles

Generally, agents of the state such as the police, prison officers or border guards cannot use lethal force while fulfilling their daily duties. However, in some exceptional cases, they may be forced to use lethal force to prevent even greater harm. Agents of the state may be allowed to use lethal force, but only in these situations:

  • to defend another person from unlawful violence
  • to effect a lawful arrest
  • to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained
  • to quell a riot or insurrection

example A prison guard may use a gun against someone who is trying to escape from prison and may endanger other people. However, a prison guard is not allowed to use a gun against someone who is refusing to be transferred to another location, but is not endangering the life or health of anyone else. 

important The intentional killing of a person is prohibited.

The procedure for using lethal force must be prescribed in national law and agents of the state must strictly follow these rules. 

Criteria for evaluation 

Lethal force may only be used where it is absolutely necessary and must be strictly proportional to the danger the person poses! If the use of force has resulted in someone’s death, the State will have to prove that:

  • one of the previously mentioned legitimate aims existed
  • there were no other effective means to solve the situation and
  • the use of the lethal force was proportional to the offence being committed and the level of danger that the person posed (For example, that a gun was not used just to prevent someone from starting a fistfight with another person, or that the person who was trying to escape from lawful arrest was likely to cause grave harm to someone else)

The State may be held responsible, regardless of whether its agents caused someone’s death directly or indirectly and whether they intended to kill that person. Therefore, lethal force must always be used carefully, and following proper planning where possible, taking into account the risks towards any bystanders.

If agents of the state have not observed these rules when using lethal force and this has resulted in someone’s death, the right to life will most likely be violated. 

Duty to protect life

Where state authorities know, or ought to know, that someone’s life is at real and immediate risk, they have to take all necessary and reasonable actions to avoid that risk. 

example Police or prison officers must remove a detainee from a cell if other cellmates have attacked him/her or expressed real death threats towards him/her.

Particular attention must be paid to persons in state custody, such as detainees or prisoners, since the State will have to provide an explanation in the case of their death.   

example If a detainee is seriously injured or shows signs of being suicidal, but receives no medical or specialist attention and dies as a result, it will most likely be a violation of the State’s duty to protect life. 

However, the duty to protect life does not mean that the authorities must take actions that cannot be reasonably expected or do the impossible to prevent loss of life. 

Duty to investigate

The Internal Security Bureau or the Prosecutor’s Office have an obligation to properly investigate any cases where your family member or close relative has died in detention or prison. Although the State may not even be directly responsible for the death in these situations, it must properly investigate what happened and find out whether anyone is responsible for the death of your family member or relative. 

The investigation has to be begun promptly and must be thorough and effective. 

If the State fails to investigate the death of your family member or relative, whether or not its agents were involved in causing the death, this will be considered a violation of the right to life.  

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education