More than two-thirds of the world’s countries and territories are now abolitionist in law or in practice. 113 countries have abolished the death penalty in law (106 for all crimes, seven for ‘ordinary crimes’ only). 29 countries are abolitionist in practice, meaning they have not carried out an execution for 10 years or more. Of the 56 countries that retain the death penalty, 23 were known to have carried out executions in 2017 (Amnesty International).
At least 2,591 people are known to have been sentenced to death in 2017 in 53 countries (a 17 per cent decrease from 2016’s total of 3,117). At least 993 executions were carried out in 23 countries in 2017 (a 4 per cent decrease compared to 2016), according to Amnesty International. It is worth noting that official figures are unavailable for many countries, and the statistics do not include the thousands of people believed to have been executed in China and elsewhere.
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’, which has been interpreted as being intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences. They are also required to ensure that fair trial guarantees are observed, and that where capital punishment is carried out, it is done in such a way that inflicts as little suffering as possible.
In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment concluded that there is an evolving standard whereby States and judiciaries consider the death penalty to be a violation per se of the prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and that a customary norm prohibiting the death penalty under all circumstances is in the process of formation.
In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions reminded states of the stringent constraints under which the right to life may be infringed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and how the ICCPR, adopted in 1966, envisaged the progressive restriction of the death penalty. In particular, the Special Rapporteur found that only ‘intentional killing’ fits the definition of ‘most serious crimes’, making the threshold even higher. Amnesty International, however, reported that in 2017 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’.
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.
On 18 December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution – UNGA 62/148 – which called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The resolution was adopted with 104 states in favour, 54 states against and 29 abstaining. In 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016, the General Assembly adopted further resolutions reaffirming the call for a moratorium; until 2014, the number of countries voting in favour increased each year. In both 2014 and 2016, the resolution was passed with 117 votes in favour.