UN Rights Official Cites Progress, Setbacks in Death Penalty Abolition

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March 4, 2015 –  A senior UN human rights official on Wednesday said the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty is at a record high but executing countries are increasing the frequency of its use.

UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, in an address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, said that some 160 countries have abolished, either legally or in practice, the use of the death penalty.

“In the last six months, the death penalty was abolished in Chad, Fiji and Madagascar,” he said. “However, despite this progress, there remain challenges: while we are seeing movement towards abolishing the death penalty in some countries, elsewhere, we are seeing moves towards its preservation, or even reintroduction.”

Ivanovic told the Council that despite the record number of abolitionist countries the number of states executing and the number of executions increased from 2012 to 2013.

More than 50 countries still retain the death penalty and it was used by 22 countries in 2013, resulting in a 15 percent rise in the number of people executed from 2012. Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Viet Nam resumed the death penalty in 2013.

In all, some 778 people were executed in 2013, according to Amnesty International, excluding China where the death penalty is regarded as a state secret and reliable figures are not available.

Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were responsible for more than three-quarters of reported executions while the US remained the only country in the Americas to use the death penalty, with the majority of executions taking place in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Arizona. Eighteen of the 50 US states have abolished the death penalty.

Ivanovic noted that some countries still retain the death penalty for drug offenses, “with the argument that this harsh punishment is needed for deterrence purposes. However, there is no evidence that the death penalty deters any crime,” he said.

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Singapore are among the countries that execute persons convicted of drug offenses.

Regionally, Europe and the Americas are tops for death penalty abolition while only eleven of 54 African countries use the death penalty. Sudan is Africa’s leading executioner.

All countries in the Middle East and North Africa retain the death penalty but some countries, such as Algeria, Mauritania and Qatar effectively have a moratorium on its use, while Israel has only ever executed one person, Adolf Eichmann, who was hanged in 1962 for war crimes.

Eight countries have applied the death penalty so far in 2015 with more than 100 of the 192 executions occurring in Iran alone. Of the 192 people executed in the eight countries this year, nine were women.

The other countries where executions have taken place in 2015 are Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz