Methods used around the world for execution include hanging, shooting, beheading, stoning, crucifixion, gas asphyxiation, electrocution and lethal injection. Some countries still carry out public executions. All executions constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment; there is no painless way to take a person’s life.
International law expressly prohibits the execution of children and young people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offence, pregnant women, and people suffering from mental illnesses.
International law also requires states that retain the death penalty to observe a number of limitations on its use, including to only impose the death penalty for the ‘most serious crimes’. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions has found that only ‘intentional killing’ fits the definition of ‘most serious crimes’. Amnesty International, however, reported that in 2019 in a number of countries the death penalty was imposed or implemented for crimes that did not involve ‘intentional killing’, including drug-related offences, rape, blasphemy, kidnapping, espionage, ‘questioning the leader’s policies’ and different forms of ‘treason’.
In capital punishment cases international law requires the observance of fair trial guarantees, and that where capital punishment is carried out, it is done in such a way that inflicts as little suffering as possible.
As of December 2017, at least 85 states have ratified international and regional instruments that provide for restrictions on the use of the death penalty and its ultimate abolition. These include the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Protocols No. 6 and 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and its Protocol to Abolish the Death Penalty.
As of March 2019, 86 states had ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, committing to the full abolition of the death penalty. On 18 December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution which called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. A similar resolution has been adopted biannually since and in 2020, a record number of UN member states – 123 out of 193 – voted in favour of a moratorium on its use.