The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and a violation of the right to life.
It represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity. Once carried out, it cannot be reversed, and as criminal justice systems are open to error and discrimination, there is always a risk that innocent people will be killed. The death penalty has never been reliably shown to deter criminal behaviour more effectively than other punishments.
Studies show that the death penalty is imposed disproportionately on the most marginalised groups in society, such as the poor, indigenous people, ethnic, sexual and religious minorities, people with mental health problems and learning difficulties. The death penalty is often handed down in procedures without adequate fair trial safeguards.
While there is not yet agreement that international law prohibits the death penalty per se, it explicitly requires that capital punishment should be limited to the ‘most serious crimes’. It also prohibits its imposition on children, pregnant women, and people suffering from mental illnesses. However, many countries that retain the death penalty use it for a much wider range of offences, including non-violent offences. In some countries, children may be – and are – executed.
While waiting for their execution, often for years on end, death row prisoners are frequently detained in particularly harsh conditions, irrespective of whether or not they present an actual security risk. Death row has been characterised as a living hell. The severe emotional distress these prisoners experience during the lengthy wait for execution – sometimes referred to as ‘the death row phenomenon’ – has been found to violate the international prohibition against torture.
Families share the anguish when a relative is sentenced to death. Often they are not told when their loved one will be executed and have no chance to say goodbye. If an execution takes place in public, the family will be humiliated alongside the prisoner. In some countries, families are not even told where their relatives are buried. The effect on children when a parent is sentenced to death or executed is acutely traumatic, and in some countries, children are stigmatised and abandoned by the wider family.
Encouragingly, there has been a global trend towards abolishing the death penalty over the last 50 years. More and more states are reducing the number of offences, which carry the death penalty, adopting a moratorium on executions or death sentences, and are ultimately abolishing the death penalty in law or in practice. However, many countries still retain the death penalty and a large number of people continue to be executed every year.