World turns against death penalty

Fifty years ago only ten countries had completely abolished the death penalty. In 1977, the year Amnesty International took up the cause, just 17 countries were death penalty-free.

Since then, there has been a sea change.  As documented in Amnesty’s report on Death Sentences and Executions in 2010, published this week, 96 countries have now fully abolished capital punishment, while only 58 actively retain it. Of these, only 23 actually carried out executions in 2010. The remaining 43 nations have the death penalty on the books, but do not really use it.

Essentially, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries are now living without the death penalty.

Click image for an interactive map showing how the world has moved to abolish the death penalty, 1961-2010

And, lest we forget to disaggregate the United States, thanks to Illinois which introduced a death penalty ban as recently as this month, so are almost one-third of U.S. states. Although, while executions and death sentences have been dropping in the U.S. over the last decade, the use of capital punishment has been declining at a much faster rate worldwide, so that in 2010, the U.S. ranked in the top 5 of the world’s most prolific executioners, beaten only by China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. Nice company.

Yesterday’s Irish Times carried a powerful editorial, The pointless extinction of life, quoting Justice John Paul Steven. In Gregg v Georgia in 1976, he was part of the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court that voted to allow restoration of the death penalty. It is the one and only one vote that he still regrets.

In a 2008 judgment, he noted his conversion to the abolitionist cause:

I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes.

While there are still some in our local body politic who would like to see the death penalty return to the UK, isn’t Justice Steven correct in judging the world a more civilised place without the death penalty?

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan