An International Perspective on the Death Penalty

An International Perspective on the Death Penalty

"An International Perspective on the Death Penalty" by Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. Alaska Justice Forum 25(4): 10 (Winter 2009). More than two-thirds of the world's nations - 138 - have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, according to figures compiled by Amnesty International. Fifty-nine nations, including the United States, retain and use the death penalty. This article offers a brief overview of capital punishment internationally, including 2008 statistics, international treaties and protocols regarding the death penalty, and data on the imposition of the death penalty on foreign nationals in the United States.

More than two-thirds of the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. According to information compiled by Amnesty International for 2008, 92 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes; 10, for all but exceptional offenses such as some wartime crimes; and 36 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice (these are countries that can be considered to have an established practice of not using the death penalty but which retain it in their laws). Fifty-nine countries, including the United States, retain and use the death penalty.

During 2008, at least 2,390 prisoners were executed in 25 countries, and at least 8,864 were sentenced to death in 52 countries. These figures include only cases known to Amnesty International; the actual figures are thought to be higher. Five countries conducted 93 percent of all known executions in 2008: China (at least 1,718), Iran (at least 346), Saudi Arabia (at least 102), the United States (37), and Pakistan (at least 36).

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 70 states, with four others signing it to indicate the intention of becoming a 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 11 countries in the Americas. (The United States is not a signatory.)

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 has been ratified by 40 states and signed by five others.

United Nations 62nd General Assembly Resolution

The United Nations 62nd General Assembly introduced a second resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in December 2008. Members voted 106 for, 46 against, and 34 abstained. (The United States voted against the resolution.) A higher proportion voted for the resolution than in 2007, when the first resolution was introduced.

The Death Penalty and Foreign Nationals in the United States

According to figures assembled by the Death Penalty Information Center, 124 foreign nationals from 32 countries were on death row in the U.S. in February 2009. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 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 instances where the prisoner had not been notified of the right to consular access in a timely manner before trial.

Sources for this article include Amnesty International (http://www.amnestyusa.org/) and the Death Penalty Information Center (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/).