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Mongolia Becomes the Fifth Country to Abolish the Death Penalty in 2015

On December 3, Mongolia’s parliamentary assembly, the State Great Khural, passed a historic law abolishing the death penalty under all circumstances. The newly amended Criminal Code had been expected since 2012, when Mongolia ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty whose purpose is to achieve worldwide abolition of capital punishment. State parties to the Protocol are bound not only to refrain from carrying out executions and handing down death sentences, but also to anchor abolition in national law. As of today, 84 of the UN’s 193 member states are parties to the universal abolition treaty. By September 2016, when Mongolia’s new Criminal Code comes into force, 103 countries will have eliminated capital punishment from their legal systems – a solid majority of the world’s states.

Mongolia is the fifth country to legally abolish the death penalty this year, marking an acceleration of the global trend towards the elimination of capital punishment. Unlike the four other states that abolished the death penalty in 2015 – Fiji, Suriname, Madagascar, and the Republic of Congo – Mongolia carried out executions regularly until relatively recently, the last execution having taken place in 2008. Interestingly, states that are de facto abolitionist – in other words, states that have not carried out an execution in the last ten years – are at least as slow to legally abolish the death penalty as those that regularly execute. In fact, countries that do not apply capital punishment sometimes develop a deep political attachment to its symbolic presence in the legal system, a marker of the magnitude of the state’s authority over its citizens’ lives. Thus although Suriname, Fiji, and Madagascar had not carried out a single execution since they gained their independence in 1975, 1970, and 1960 respectively, it has taken until this year for their legislatures and governments to do away with the state’s legal power over life and death.

The worldwide movement towards abolition and the resolutely abolitionist stance of many international and regional institutions have certainly contributed to achieving abolition in these states. The commitment of the United Nations to exclude death as a punishment in war crimes tribunals, the European Union’s concerted effort to make universal abolition a foreign policy priority, and the current endeavors to develop a regional African treaty prohibiting capital punishment have all contributed to shifting the death penalty debate from the realm of criminal policy to that of human rights. Moreover, the last few years have seen the number of death penalty free states in the world tip over into a critical majority, accelerating the momentum towards worldwide abolition. After Mongolian President Elbegdorj was elected in 2009 and began systematically commuting all death sentences, he declared that a “majority of the world’s countries have chosen to abolish the death penalty. We should follow this path.”

In contrast, a small minority of countries have significantly increased their use of the death penalty. Last April, Indonesia attracted widespread international criticism and lasting diplomatic fallout for restarting use of the death penalty by executing a group of drug offenders, many of them foreign nationals. Although the government initially said the executions were justified by a drug-related state of “national emergency,” there have been no further executions since, at least in part due to the volume of the international outcry. In December 2014, Pakistan ended a long moratorium and resumed executions at a staggering rate; it has since executed over 300 people. Saudi Arabia has doubled its rate of executions in recent months, beheading at least 150 prisoners so far this year against 87 for all of 2014.