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The Death Penalty in 2016: Trends Confirm Global Movement Toward Restricted Use of the Death Penalty

The number of abolitionist countries continued to grow in 2016, but national crises have created a political climate that heightens the risk that the death penalty will be reintroduced in a handful of abolitionist nations.

In 2016 the Center documented executions in 21 of the world’s 195 states and territories. It is possible that other retentionist states—notably SyriaYemenVietnam, and South Sudan—carried out secret executions not reported in the media or other sources, but the fact remains that a minority of the world’s states retain the death penalty, and a smaller minority still carry out judicial executions.

The Center’s data also shows that most executions are carried out in two regions: the Middle East and Asia. In the Middle East, our research indicates that Iraq carried out 101 executions and Iran carried out 545 executions in 2016. In both countries the actual number of executions is likely to be higher, given the governments’ underreporting of executions. According to a tally based on official announcements, Saudi Arabia carried out 153 executions in 2016, maintaining the high number of executions begun after King Salman took power in January 2015.

In Asia, sources estimate that China carried out thousands of executions in 2016 (although the number of executions remains a state secret). After China, the highest numbers of executions in Asia were carried out in Pakistan, which executed 87 people in 2016. This is a dramatic reduction in the number of executions from 2015, when Pakistan executed approximately 320 people. The drop in executions may be attributable to public concern about the application of the death penalty. For example, there was public outcry in October 2016 when the Pakistan Supreme Court found that two men executed in 2015 were innocent, and in late 2016 public pressure led to a stay in the execution of Imdad Ali, a mentally ill man.

As the only country to apply the death penalty in Europe, Belarus carried out 3 executions in 2016, with 1 person remaining on death row in Belarus and at risk of execution.While Belarus is described as “the death penalty’s final frontier in Europe,” the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled a desire to reinstate the death penalty—abolished in Turkey in 2004—in response to the failed coup in July 2016.

The United States was the only state to carry out executions in the Americas last year, as has been the case for the past 8 years in a row. In the United States, executions have fallen to a 25-year low, with 20 executions carried out in 2016 (compared to 98 in 1999, the highest number in the past 25 years). Nevertheless, the number of people on death row in the United States has only slightly declined in the last twenty years, from 3,219 in 1996 to 2,905 in 2016.

A majority of African countries with death penalty laws are considered abolitionist de facto, having not carried out an execution in over 10 years. A small number of countries in Africa carried out executions in 2016. Botswana and Egypt each executed 1 person, South Sudan carried out a reported 2 executions, and Nigeria carried out 3 executions. Somalia carried out 4 executions (with Somaliland executing 8 people and Puntland 1 person). Secrecy surrounding executions, especially in Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan, means that estimates of executions may be unreliable. Burundi, which abolished the death penalty in 2009, is another country in danger of reintroducing the death penalty. In February 2016, Minister Emmanuel Ntahomvukiye stated in parliament that the death penalty should be reinstated to punish those involved in the failed 2015 coup. Other countries in Africa continue to restrict their use of capital punishment: in October 2016 Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta commuted the sentences of 2,655 men and 92 women to life imprisonment.  Nevertheless, Kenyan courts continue to impose death sentences.

In 2016, two countries—Benin and Nauru—confirmed that they had abolished the death penalty for all offences. The Constitutional Court of Benin ruled in January 2016 that Benin’s 2012 ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (aiming at the abolition of the death penalty) rendered all legal provisions stipulating the imposition of the death penalty inoperative, effectively confirming the 2012 abolition of the death penalty.

In June 2016, Nauru, which had not carried out an execution since its independence in 1968, implemented a new criminal code that removed any mention of the death penalty left over from the previous 1899 criminal code. It appears, however, that Nauru’s Constitution retains an article allowing for the imposition of the death penalty if new legislation prescribing the death penalty for an offence is enacted. In 2016, Guinea abolished the death penalty for ordinary offences, but retains the death penalty for crimes under military law or in exceptional circumstances.

Every two years the world gains insight into the political status of the death penalty worldwide, when the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution calling for the progressive restriction and eventual abolition of the death penalty. Confirming the global trend toward abolition of the death penalty, the 2016 resolution on a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty resolution passed with 117 votes in favor, 40 against and 31 abstentions. Notably, Guinea, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka moved from abstention to voting in favor and Zimbabwe from voting against to abstention.

Since 2007, when the resolution was introduced, the number of states favoring the moratorium has increased from 104 in 2008 to 117 in 2014 and 2016, but last year’s vote was marked by a record-breaking number of states withdrawing their support for the moratorium. Two countries—Burundi and South Sudan—moved from voting in favor of the resolution to voting against. Equatorial GuineaNiger, Philippines, and Seychelles moved from vote in favor to abstention, in the case of the Philippines reflecting the newly-elected president’s campaign promise to reinstate the death penalty.

The resolution included an important addition aimed at improving transparency in the application of the death penalty: a request that retentionist countries provide information on scheduled executions. Opponents of the moratorium, who contend that international law allows for the imposition of the death penalty for “the most serious crimes, » successfully inserted a new paragraph to the resolution on state sovereignty. This paragraph reaffirms “the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, including determining appropriate legal penalties, in accordance with their international law obligations.” A similar amendment was proposed and rejected in 2014.

Nevertheless, the resolution does not shy away from framing the death penalty as a human rights issue and continues to call upon states to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims at the universal abolition of the death penalty.