Death penalty: the road to global abolition

During the past twenty years the number of countries carrying out executions has steadily declined.  In his 2008 report to the UN General Assembly the Secretary-General, Ban Ki- moon, stated that “the solid and longstanding trend towards global abolition of the death penalty continues”.

Many governments recognize that the death penalty cannot be reconciled with the promotion and protection of human rights. Consequently more and more governments around the world have abolished capital punishment.  Only 18 countries carried out executions in 2009 and the majority of these known executions were carried in just 6 countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, USA and Yemen.  139 countries from all regions had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

 The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights and as a punishment it is cruel, inhuman and degrading.  As a punishment the death penalty is irrevocable. In even the most developed legal systems miscarriages of justice occur and innocent men and women are executed.  Furthermore, the death penalty is inherently arbitrary and used disproportionately used against minorities, the poor and those who are marginalized in society.

 As the international momentum against the death penalty grows the UN General Assembly called for a global moratorium on executions.  In 2008, the most recent resolution, 105 states backed the call to suspend executions. Only ten members of the League of Arab States voted against the resolution.  The fact that the resolution achieved cross regional support is further evidence that opposition to the death penalty is not exclusive to any particular region, political system, religion, culture or tradition. 

 Although not legally binding such resolutions are further evidence of the world-wide trend against executions and important milestones in the campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide.  Those states which retain the death penalty should suspend executions pending a review of their laws on capital punishment.  Pending the review states must ensure that international human rights law is not breached and fully respect international standards for fair trial.

 When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 only a few countries had abolished the death penalty.  Some 60 years on 139 out of 192 UN member states have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.   This positive development is largely due to the work of NGOs such as Amnesty International and the World Coalition against the Death Penalty and their campaign to secure global abolition of the death penalty.  There is a steady path towards abolition of the death penalty and world free of executions is no longer an unrealistic dream.

Martin Macpherson

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