An International Perspective on the Death Penalty

An International Perspective on the Death Penalty

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Spring 2002). "An International Perspective on the Death Penalty." Alaska Justice Forum 19(1): 5. More than half of the world's nations - 111 - have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, according to figures compiled by Amnesty International. Eighty-four nations, including the United States, retain and use the death penalty. This article gives an overview of capital punishment internationally, including 2001 statistics, international treaties and protocols regarding the death penalty, and the imposition of the death penalty on foreign nationals in the United States.

Over half the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, according to information compiled by Amnesty International: 74 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes; 15, for all but exceptional offenses such as some wartime crimes; and 22 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice. Eighty-four countries, including the United States, retain and use the death penalty.

During 2001, at least 3,048 prisoners were executed throughout the world, in 31 countries, and at least 5,265 were sentenced to death, in 69 countries. These figures include only cases known to Amnesty International; the actual figures are probably higher. Four countries conducted 90 percent of all known executions in 2000: China (2,468), Iran (139), Saudi Arabia (79) and the United States (66). Amnesty International considers the figures for China, Iran and Saudi Arabia to be low.

International Treaties

Several international protocols now commit parties to not having a death penalty:

The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for the total abolition of the death penalty but permits states to retain it in wartime as an exception. This protocol has been ratified by 46 states, with 7 others signing it to indicate the intention of becoming party to it at a later date. (The United States is not a signatory.)

The Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty is similar to the previous protocol. It has been ratified by 8 countries in the Americas and signed by one other. (The United States is not a signatory.)

The Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights) provides for the elimination of the death penalty in peacetime. It has been ratified by 39 European states and signed by three others.

The Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights) provides for the total abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances. It opened for signatures in May 2002.

In addition to these four international protocols, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically prohibits the imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed by person less than eighteen years of age. Although the United States is a party to this treaty, U.S. ratification specified a reservation to this particular provision — that is, the U.S. will not honor this aspect of the covenant.

The Death Penalty and Foreign Nationals in the United States

According to figures assembled by the Death Penalty Information Center, 112 foreign nationals from 34 countries were on death row in the U.S. in April 2002. The Vienna Convention on Consular Rights requires authorities to inform a foreign national under arrest of the right to confer with consular officials from the country of citizenship to obtain legal aid and guidance. Although the United States is a party to this convention, and it is binding upon all states in the conduct of the criminal process, its requirements have often not been followed. This has become a particular issue in death penalty cases, with executions carried out in several cases where the prisoner had not been notified of the right to consular access in a timely manner before trial.