170 countries have abolished the death penalty or do not practice it, according to the UN.
The movement towards worldwide abolition of the death penalty continues, albeit with some setbacks. According to the UN, 170 out of 193 UN Member States have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it. Positively, Papua New Guinea passed a law to abolish the death penalty in January 2022 after reintroducing it in 1991, noting that the state lacked the mechanisms and infrastructure to carry it out humanely. passed a similar law in July 2021- the 22nd country in Africa to do so.
There have been notable regressions, however, including in Malawi, where the Supreme Court declared the death penalty as unconstitutional in April 2021, but soon retreated from its decision four months later. The Supreme Court clarified that only mandatory death sentences are unconstitutional and trial judges can impose the death sentence on a discretionary basis.
Furthermore, several countries retaining the death penalty have regressed and handed down death sentences or carried out executions over the past year. Japan executed three individuals in 2021, the country’s first executions since 2019. Saudi Arabia executed 52 people in the first half of 2021 alone, almost twice the number of executions in 2020. Belarus, the only European country that still imposes the death penalty, announced that it will conduct a referendum on the death penalty, but executed one person in March 2022.
Executions in the US reached historic lows after a high in 2020 under the Trump administration. In 2021, no federal executions were carried out, but 18 people were sentenced to death and 11 were executed across US states. A majority of the states in the US (26 of 50 states) have abolished capital punishment or imposed a moratorium on its use.
Drug offences constitute a large proportion of death penalty cases in a handful of retentionist countries and moves to abolish the death penalty for drug offences around the world have been mixed (see Drug policies). Thirty-five countries retain the death penalty for drug offences and 3,000 people are estimated to be on death row for drug offences worldwide. In 2021, at least 131 people were executed for drug offences, constituting a 336% increase compared to 2020. Death sentences for drug offences were confirmed in Bangladesh, Egypt, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Iraq.
Some moves towards abolition of the death sentence for drug offences include in Saudi Arabia where a moratorium in such cases was recently imposed and no executions for drug offences were carried out in 2021. No executions have taken place in Indonesia for the fifth consecutive year and in Malaysia, the Special Committee on the death penalty has indicated that a bill to amend the laws on death penalty will be tabled in 2022. In Singapore, where a majority of people on death row have been convicted of drug offences, a temporary reprieve was ordered for a Malaysian man with mental disabilities who is on death row for drug offences after he contracted COVID-19 in prison. The President of Singapore also ordered a delay in the execution of two persons with intellectual disabilities in February 2022. In March, however, Singapore’s highest court made clear that the law does not prohibit the execution of people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. Executions for drug offences resumed (the first since November 2019) with the hanging of a 68-year-old man, followed by a Malaysian man in April, while another Malaysian man won a last-minute reprieve pending a legal challenge in May.
At least 131 people were executed for drug offences in 2021, a 336% increase compared to 2020.
Women make up a small minority of death row populations, but they are predominantly there for drug offences or murder charges. In Iran, more than a dozen women were reportedly executed in 2021 on these counts and at least one woman in China was executed for a drug offence. In Malaysia, 95% of all women on death row in 2019 were convicted of a drug offence compared to 70% of men.
In some parts of the world, the death penalty is increasingly used as a tool for political repression and to quell opposition and dissent. In March 2022, Saudi Arabia executed 81 men in one day for terrorism and other offences including holding “deviant beliefs”; about half of the men were Muslims from the Shiite minority who had taken part in anti-government protests. In Egypt, out of over 100 crimes for which the death penalty may be imposed, 15 capital crimes are found in the anti-terror law. Death sentences are commonly imposed in mass trials and for charges such as proximity to an event relating to political opposition and close to 40 people were executed under such offences in only the first six months of 2021. In Iran, out of the 254 people reportedly executed as of November 2021, at least seven were convicted of terrorism charges amid condemnation by UN independent experts at the practice of secret executions where counsel and families of those on death row are not provided with notice.
Analysis continues to demonstrate that the death penalty is disproportionately imposed on persons belonging to marginalised groups. A recent report from India shows that 62% of individuals on death row had a mental illness and 11% had an intellectual disability. In the US, racial disparities in the use of capital punishment are clear with 10 of the 18 people sentenced to death in 2021 being people of colour. Foreign nationals, particularly migrant workers and women accused of drug offences, form a substantial part of the persons on death row in a number of retentionist countries and a tenth of all known death sentence for drug offences were imposed on foreign nationals in 2021. For instance, around 30% of those on death row in Bahrain and 40% in Malaysia are foreign nationals. In the mass execution in March 2022, Saudi Arabia is reported to have executed eight foreign nationals.
Further, despite a clear international prohibition on the use of capital punishment for children, some countries continue to allow for it in law or in practice. In Iran, where more than 85 people are held on death row for crimes committed as children and where there is overwhelming public opinion against the death penalty for crimes committed by children, two people were executed in 2021 for crimes they committed before the age of 18.