In December 2020, a record 123 governments supported the biennial UN resolution which calls for a universal moratorium on executions.
The movement towards the universal abolition of the death penalty continues to grow, with a vast majority of states having abolished it in law and in practice. However, there has still been regression in a few hard-line countries. Chad, Kazakhstan and Armenia recently joined the two-thirds of the countries in the world that have abolished capital punishment for all crimes. Chad removed the last remaining dispositions providing for the death penalty in its anti-terrorism legislation, and Kazakhstan and Armenia ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in early 2021, which is the only binding international instrument prohibiting the use of the death penalty. In the US, Colorado abolished the death penalty in March 2020, as did Virginia in March 2021, the 23rd state – and first southern state – to do so. Two-thirds of US states have now either abolished capital punishment or have not carried out any executions in the last decade.
In 2020 there was a record low number of executions worldwide. At least 483 executions were carried out in 18 countries in 2020, while in 2019 at least 649 executions were recorded in 20 countries.The statistics continue to exclude China, where capital punishment is classified as a state secret, but thousands of people are believed to be executed every year.
At least 483 people were executed in 2020 (including 16 women), 26% less than in 2019.
Some progress, albeit limited, has also been observed in retentionist countries. Sudan repealed its laws that provide for the death penalty and flogging for consensual same-sex relationships and for apostasy. Attitudes are changing in Iran, where a recent study showed that 44 per cent of people surveyed stated that they were against the death penalty for all crimes, and 85 per cent agreed that it should not be used on people who were children at the time of the crime. In Saudi Arabia, a royal decree was issued in April 2020 ending capital punishment for offences committed as a child. Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled in February 2021 that people who have serious mental health issues should not be executed.
Where the death penalty remains in place there is evidence that shows its use is often inherent and systematically arbitrary. Journalists and protestors have been executed in several retentionist countries, including Yemen and Iran. In Malaysia, as of 1 December 2019, 70 per cent of people on death row had been sentenced to death for drug-related crimes, a category that does not meet the threshold of the ‘most serious crimes’ for which the death penalty can only be imposed per international law.
In the US, the federal government in the Trump administration’s last six months resumed executions after a 17-year-long moratorium. Between July and December 2020, 10 people were executed, more than all executions in the states combined. The Death Penalty Information Center reported that the vast majority of them suffered from mental illnesses and disabilities at varying degrees. In January 2021, Lisa Montgomery became the first woman executed by the federal government in 70 years, despite evidence of mental impairments from a lifetime of abuse.
Elsewhere, there were talks of broadening the use of the death penalty. Amid public protests, the President of Bangladesh signed an ordinance making rape a capital offence. In the Philippines, there have been renewed calls for reinstating the death penalty as a tool in the country’s violent ‘war on drugs’.
144 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the use of the death penalty is difficult to measure. It may be contributing to the lower number of executions and executing countries during 2020, with delayed court processes and other restrictions resulting in fewer death sentences being handed down and carried out. In Saudi Arabia, one of the top executing countries, observers reported that the significant drop in executions in 2020 could be partly explained by the lockdown restrictions between February and April. In the US, several executions and capital trials were halted by the closure of courts and the spread of COVID-19 among people in prison on death row. An analysis by the Associated Press showed that recent federal prison executions likely resulted in ‘super spreader’ events not least due to the high number of people present. Conversely, there have been at least two occurrences of death sentencing in virtual judgements, in May 2020 in Nigeria and Singapore, during the nationwide lockdowns in force at the time.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.