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.