Thu. February 22, 2018 Get Published  Get Alerts
Universal Abolition of Capital Punishment is Drawing Nearer


By Professor William A. Schabas

Every five years the United Nations Secretary-General issues a detailed report on the status of capital punishment. The reports have appeared since the mid-1970s. The most recent of them, the ninth quinquennial report, came out in April 2015. It confirms consistent progress towards worldwide elimination of capital punishment.

According to the Secretary-General’s report, 159 countries can be considered abolitionist, in that they have either abolished the death penalty in law or stopped using it in practice. Only 39 countries continue to use the death penalty. Of these states, more than half use it infrequently.

By comparison, the first of the Secretary-General’s reports, published in 1974, indicated that 22 out of 68 States had abolished capital punishment, the majority of them only partially, which is to say for “ordinary crimes’ and excluding such offences as treason and those committed in wartime. The Secretary-General concluded that it “remains extremely doubtful whether there is any progression towards the restriction of the use of the death penalty.”

But the four subsequent decades leave no doubt about such a trend.  On average, two to three states every year abolish the death penalty. But also very significant, as the Secretary-General’s latest report indicates, is the decline in use of capital punishment within those States that retain the practice. For example, China, which is at the top of the list in terms of absolute numbers of executions, provides evidence of important reductions including amendments to its penal legislation removing the death penalty for certain crimes. In the United States, which is close to the top of the list, use of the death penalty also continues to decline. Slowly, its component states are abolishing the death penalty. The latest to do so, Nebraska, is significant because it is considered to be relatively conservative.

Capital punishment has virtually disappeared from many parts of the world.  In Europe, with the exception of Belarus, where a very small number of executions are carried out each year, it can be considered extinct.  In the Western Hemisphere, only the United States has conducted executions over the past five years.  Dramatic progress is also evident in Africa, where capital punishment has been abandoned by most countries.

The only part of the world where the practice may be on the increase is the Middle East. Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen conduct large numbers of executions each year, sometimes in public and using brutal methods. Although the death penalty may be imposed for ordinary crimes like murder, its widespread use seems driven by the repressive politics of these countries rather than the normal imperatives of law enforcement.

In South-East Asia, the death penalty has declined dramatically.  Nevertheless, some States cling to its use for crimes related to drug trafficking. This is contrary to international human rights law which limits the use of capital punishment to “the most serious crimes,” specifying that this means acts with lethal or other grave consequences.  These States argue that the death penalty provides an important deterrent.

The deterrence argument has been debated repeatedly but to no avail for either side. Scientific studies are incapable of demonstrating whether or not capital punishment offers a significantly superior deterrent effect to prolonged life imprisonment, which is the alternative punishment. The best deterrent, of course, is better law enforcement and investigation, especially when crimes driven purely by monetary gain like drug trafficking are involved.

There are many misconceptions about the role of public opinion. In Europe, for example, it has often been said that abolition was the work of elites who took the initiative despite what ordinary people believed.  But young people in Europe, who have grown up without capital punishment, do not long for its return. Generally, they view it as a barbaric, medieval form of punishment, like the pillory or other forms of public torture.  And with rare exceptions, even the most conservative political parties do not include the return of capital punishment in their programs. If the death penalty were really so popular, we would expect to see demagogic, populist politicians and journalists tugging at the heartstrings of the public. And we do not see this.

It seems that nothing can stop continued progress towards universal abolition. In the United Nations General Assembly, a bi-annual resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment attracts increasing support. Recently, in the most forthright statement on the subject from the Vatican, Pope Francis said that “the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” If the trends continue, five years from now there will be 25 to 30 States with the death penalty, and in another five years 15 to 20, and then it will disappear.

William A. Schabas is professor of international law at Middlesex University London, professor of international criminal law and human rights at Leiden University and emeritus professor of human rights law at the National University of Ireland Galway. He is the author of many books and articles on the abolition of capital punishment, genocide, human rights and the international criminal tribunals. Professor Schabas was a member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and holds several honorary doctorates.  He is the author of more than twenty books dealing in whole or in part with international human rights law.  He has also published more than 350 articles in academic journals. and is editor-in-chief of Criminal Law Forum, the quarterly journal of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law 


Read more articles about capital punishment around the world in the new issue of International Affairs Forum available here.

Comments in Chronological order (0 total comments)

Report Abuse
Quick Links Twitter Face Book Get Alerts Contact Us Enter Ia-Forum Student Award Competition
02/22/2018: Rebuilding Macroeconomic Theory More
02/22/2018: At emotionally raw White House 'listening session,' Trump reminded himself to say, 'I hear you' More
02/22/2018: Trump declares hoax Russian story hoaxed fake media into covering hoax rallies More
02/22/2018: Mueller files additional charges against former Trump campaign manager Manafort and aide Gates More
02/22/2018: Two USGS appointees resigned because Interior chief wanted to see new oil and gas data in advance More
02/22/2018: Pennsylvania has a completely new congressional map. Our new guide walks you through each district. More
02/22/2018: SCOTUS: When you sue abusive prison guards and win, the guards should get 25 percent of your award More
02/22/2018: Austin official says prison blocked him from abused asylum seeker because he might talk to media More
02/22/2018: Trump administration again proposes the full elimination of home heating assistance to the poor More
02/22/2018: 'We have not declared war on the press,' Sarah Sanders claims, while attacking the press More
02/22/2018: RNC is using a 'slush fund' to pay Trump's former bodyguard $15,000 per month for 'consulting' More
02/22/2018: Disney is using 'tax cut bonus' to try to force union workers to accept low pay More
02/22/2018: Open thread for night owls: ACLU report explores how 21st Century Americans can go to debtors prison More
02/21/2018: Trump takes a hatchet to Obama-era pro-LGBTQ health policies More
02/21/2018: HUGE: Democrats flip Kentucky seat Trump won by 49 points, making this the 37th red-to-blue pickup More
02/21/2018: Olympic biathletes: 'Our country needs to change' on guns More
02/21/2018: Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake will try to force a vote on a plan for Dreamers More
02/21/2018: Have dirt on Trump? For hush money, go to his lawyer ... or the National Enquirer More
02/21/2018: Trump gets back to sabotaging Obamacare More
02/21/2018: Missouri has been paying cash at secret rendezvous for the drug it uses to execute people More
02/21/2018: On the 123rd anniversary of his death, here's an essay by Frederick Douglass on Reconstruction More
02/21/2018: Man featured on dating website for Trump fans was convicted for 'indecent liberties with a minor' More
02/21/2018: Razing Arizona: Republican lawmakers assault independent redistricting commissionAGAIN More
02/21/2018: Open thread for night owls. MacGillis: How pessimism undermines push for stricter gun laws More
02/21/2018: The role of negative trade secrets in the Uber-Waymo settlement - The role of negative trade secrets in the Uber-Waymo settlement More
02/21/2018: Cheers and Jeers: Wednesday More
02/21/2018: Abbreviated Pundit Round-up: Another day in America, which is why the kids are angry More
02/21/2018: Daily Kos Radio is LIVE at 9AM ET! More
02/21/2018: Trump calls to strengthen background checks nine days after his budget cut funding for them More
02/21/2018: Morning Digest: Pennsylvania's new congressional map scrambles the playing field in many races More
02/21/2018: Cartoon: Broken child, grown man More
02/21/2018: Marco Rubio is being called out for having it both ways on guns, and he doesn't appreciate that More
02/21/2018: As FEMA ends its temporary housing program, displaced Puerto Rican families face homelessness More
02/21/2018: Are Europes digital companies paying their fair share? - Agency fees explained | In 60 seconds - AEI More
02/21/2018: Trade Talks Episode 24: The Trump Administration Views Trade as National Security Threat More
02/21/2018: Not just Parkland: Students rise up against gun violence More
02/21/2018: Congressman representing district with Columbine and Aurora nearly boo'd out of town hall over guns More
02/21/2018: A generation of Parkland students is coming for Republican lawmakers More
02/21/2018: Trump keeps tweeting, keeps reminding us how deep Mitch McConnell is in the Russia election hacking More
02/21/2018: Texas school district threatens suspension if students protest to prevent the next mass shooting More
02/21/2018: Man who quit job over ICE thought about his own family: 'I couldnt comprehend us being separated' More
02/21/2018: Immigrant teen credited with saving lives of at least 20 of his fellow Parkland students More
02/21/2018: Pennsylvania Republicans, utterly rejecting democracy, want to impeach judges who ordered new maps More
02/21/2018: Florida House: Porn is a public health risk, assault weapons are not More
02/21/2018: This isn't just a fight between the U.S. and Russiaand what's at stake can't be overstated More
02/21/2018: That time when the GOP was on the wrong side of every movement for freedom in the country More
02/21/2018: Starkville, Mississippi aldermen block residents from holding an LGBTQ pride parade. Buckle up. More
02/21/2018: Florida Republicans really don't want to face students fighting for their lives More
02/21/2018: DACA recipients are educators, nurses and first respondersand they need the DREAM Act now More
02/21/2018: Democrats, you have another shot at the Dream Act. Don't blink this time More
About | Contact Us | Support Us | Terms and Conditions

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2018