Temps de lecture - min

Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle Reflect on the Movement Towards Worldwide Abolition of the Death Penalty

Today sees the publication by Oxford University Press of the 5th edition of Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle’s book, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. Followers of the excellent blog hosted by Cornell University’s Death Penalty Worldwide website, and their active twitter feed, may be forgiven for thinking that the picture is rather depressing for abolitionists. As most of us in the US and Europe were welcoming tidying up after our New Years Eve parties, Iran was busy executing 14 people, including four women, and carrying out a punitive amputation of a man’s hand in a prison near Mashhad. In the week since New Years Day, Iran has executed at least another four prisoners, apparently following the trend set in 2014 for very high execution rates, rates that have increased since President Rouhani assumed office in August 2013.

Jordan brought us depressing news just before Christmas when it executed 11 Jordanian men by hanging, ending an eight-year de facto moratorium on the death penalty. A country that had provided a beacon of hope in that region had slipped back in line with its neighbours.

But particular concern has been expressed over Pakistan. Nine persons have been hanged in Pakistan since the lifting of the moratorium on capital punishment in the aftermath of the atrocious attack, in December 2014, on the school in Peshawar that left approximately 150 people dead, most of them children, and left scars within that community that will never heal. Pakistan’s response to terrorism is perhaps not surprising, given the fear that such acts can spread across not only the target nation but the whole world. Last night the world’s media expressed dismay and anger at the murders of 12 people, some of them high- profile journalists – in Paris in an act of Islamic terrorism. Instead of reacting with calls for the resumption of the death penalty, France and her European neighbours reached for their pencils to demonstrate the importance of freedom of speech. For a country that has been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, this might be expected. But we need to remind ourselves that a few decades ago, this would not have been the case. These terrorists, once caught and convicted, would have been executed.

The attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the resulting demonstrations around Europe provide clear evidence of how far Europe has come since it enforced the death penalty. However, Europe no longer stands alone. As the fifth edition of The Death Penalty shows, there have been considerable changes in the use of capital punishment in all regions of the world over the past quarter of a century; changes that have shifted our pessimism towards increasing optimism that worldwide abolition may be achieved in the foreseeable future.

Since the end of 1988, the number of actively retentionist countries (by which we mean countries that have carried out judicial executions in the past 10 years) has declined from 101 to 39, while the number that has completely abolished the death penalty has almost trebled from 35 to 99, with 33 regarded as abolitionist in practice. In 2013 only 22 countries were known to have carried out an execution and the number that regularly executes a substantial number of its citizens has dwindled. Only seven nations executed an average of 20 people or more over the five year period from 2009 to 2013: China (by far the largest number), Iran (the highest per head of population), Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Yemen. The change has been truly remarkable.

The dynamo for this new wave of abolition is the development of international human rights law and norms. Arising in the aftermath of the Second World War and linked to the emergence of countries from totalitarian imperialism and colonialism, the acceptance of international human rights principles transformed consideration of capital punishment from an issue to be decided solely or mainly as an aspect of national criminal justice policy to the status of a fundamental violation of human rights: not only the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life but the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. The idea that each nation has the sovereign right to retain the death penalty as a repressive tool of its domestic criminal justice system on the grounds of its purported deterrent utility (for which there is no convincing evidence) or the cultural preferences and expectations of its citizens was being replaced by a growing acceptance that countries that retain the death penalty – however they administer it – inevitably violate universally accepted human rights, as this new edition of The Death Penalty convincingly demonstrates yet again.

The human rights dynamic has not only resulted in fewer countries retaining the death penalty on their books, but also in the declining scope of the death penalty.   There has been a significant reduction in the range of offences for which the ultimate penalty can be imposed in many of those countries. Since the introduction of Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of those Facing the Death Penalty, which were first promulgated by the UN Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 and adopted by the General Assembly 30 years ago, there have been attempts to progressively restrict the use of capital punishment to the most heinous offences and the most culpable offenders and various measures to try to ensure that the death penalty is only applied where and when defendants have had access to a fair and safe criminal process. Hence, in many retentionist countries juveniles, the mentally ill and the learning disabled are exempt from capital punishment, and some countries restrict the death penalty to culpable homicide.

There has been some strong resistance to the political movement to force change ever since the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. Attempts by the abolitionist nations at United Nations Congresses, in the General Assembly, beginning in 1994, and at the Commission on Human Rights, annually from 1997, to press for a resolution calling for a moratorium on the imposition of death sentences and executions met with hostility from many of the retentionist nations. By 2005, when an attempt had been made at the Commission on Human Rights to secure sufficient support to bring such a resolution before the United Nations, it had been opposed by 66 countries on the grounds that there was no international consensus that capital punishment should be abolished. Since then, as the resolution has been successfully brought before the General Assembly, the opposition has weakened as each subsequent vote was taken in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012, when 111 countries (60 per cent) voted in favour and 41 against. Just three weeks ago, 114 of the UN’s 193 member states voted in favour of the resolution which will go before the General Assembly Plenary for final adoption this month. The notion behind Human Rights 365 – that we are a part of a global community of shared values – is reflected in this increasing support for a worldwide moratorium as a further step towards worldwide abolition. We encourage all those who believe in human rights to continue working towards this ideal and not respond to the fear caused by terrorism by reaching for the noose.


The fifth edition of Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle’s The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective is published on 8 January 2015. This completely up-to-date and substantially revised new edition of a highly praised study remains the most authoritative account of abolition and retention, and the use and administration of capital punishment in law and practice around the world.

Professor Roger Hood is Professor Emeritus of Criminology and an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, and former Director of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford.

Professor Carolyn Hoyle is Director of the Centre for Criminology in the Faculty of Law and Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. @CarolynHoyle1