Most Serious Crimes

Most Serious Crimes

Article 6 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that the death penalty may only be imposed for the “most serious crimes.” International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976. The Human Rights Committee has observed that this expression must be “read restrictively,” because death is a “quite exceptional measure.” Human Rights Committee, General Comment 6(16), para. 7. The Human Rights Committee has held that the imposition of the death penalty for a crime not resulting in the victim’s death constituted a violation of Article 6(2). See, e.g., Chisanga v. Zambia, Communication No. 1132/2002, para. 5.4.

In 1984, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations further defined the restriction to “most serious crimes” in its Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty, E.S.C. res. 1984/50; GA Res. 39/118. Those Safeguards, which were endorsed by the UN General Assembly, provide that the death penalty may only be imposed for intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions considers that the term “intentional” should be “equated to premeditation and should be understood as deliberate intention to kill.” United Nations, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, UN Doc. CCPR/C/79/Add. 85, 19 Nov. 1997, para. 13.

Consistent with these principles, courts in some common law jurisdictions have vacated death sentences imposed on accomplice defendants who did not conclusively act with lethal intent. See, e.g., Ram Anup Singh & Ors. v. State of Bihar, 2002 (3) RCR Criminal 7856 (Supreme Court of India); Haroon Khan v. the State, (Trinidad and Tobago) Privy Council Appeal No. 28 of 2003, Judgment of 20 November 2003, UKPC (2003) (vacating death sentence imposed under a statute not requiring determination of intent to kill); Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab 1983 3 SCC 470 (Supreme Court of India) (death penalty not to be applied except in gravest cases of extreme culpability); R. v. Vaillancourt v. The Queen (1987) 47 DLR 399, (4th) 415-417 and R. v. Martineau (1990) 2 SCR 633, 646-647 (Canadian felony murder statute not requiring establishment of requisite intent inconsistent with fundamental principles of justice). These examples of state practice add support to an argument that the limitation of the death penalty to intentional crimes with lethal consequences is now part of customary international law.


Suarez Rosero v. Ecuador, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R., Nov. 12, 1997.

Henry v. Jamaica, 230/1987, Nov. 1, 1991, Report of the Human Rights Committee, A/47/40, 1992, at 218.

Ashingdane v. United Kingdom, 93 Eur. Ct. H.R. (ser. A), para. 57 (1985).


Rick Lines, A “Most Serious Crime”? The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses and International Human Rights Law, Amicus Journal, Issue 21, 21-28,, 2010.

Jens David Ohlin, Applying the Death Penalty to Crimes of Genocide, 99 AM. J. INT’L L. 747, 2005.

Patrick Gallahue and Rick Lines, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2015: The Extreme Fringe of Global Drug Policy, Harm Reduction International,, Oct. 2015.

Last updated on October 8, 2015.