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Capital punishment, also called the death penalty, is the execution (putting to death) of a convicted criminal by the state as punishment for crimes known as capital crimes or capital offenses. Historically, the execution of criminals and political opponents was used by nearly all societies—both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent. Among countries around the world, almost all European and many Pacific Area states (including Australia, New Zealand and Timor Leste), and Canada have abolished capital punishment. In Latin America most states have completely abolished the use of capital punishment, while some countries, however, like Brazil, allow for capital punishment only in exceptional situations, such as treason committed during wartime. The United States (the federal government and 36 of its states), Guatemala, most of the Caribbean and the majority of democracies in Asia (e.g. Japan and India) and Africa (e.g. Botswana and Zambia) retain it.

In most places that practice capital punishment today, the death penalty is reserved as punishment for premeditated murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. In some countries sexual crimes, such as rape, adultery and sodomy, carry the death penalty, as do religious crimes such as apostasy (the formal renunciation of one's religion). In many retentionist countries (countries that use the death penalty), drug trafficking is also a capital offense. In China human trafficking and serious cases of corruption are also punished by the death penalty. In militaries around the world courts-martial have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny.[1]

Capital punishment is a very contentious issue in some cultures. Supporters of capital punishment argue that it deters crime, prevents recidivism, and is an appropriate form of punishment for the crime of murder. Opponents of capital punishment argue that it does not deter criminals more than life imprisonment, violates human rights, leads to executions of some who are wrongfully convicted, and discriminates against minorities and the poor.

The latest country looking to abolish the death penalty for all crimes was Gabon which announced on September 14, 2007 that they would no longer apply capital punishment.[2]

The death penalty worldwide[]

Global distribution of death penalty[]

Since World War II there has been a consistent trend towards abolishing the death penalty. In 1977, 16 countries were abolitionist, while the figure has since now gone up to 133. Currently, 90 countries have abolished capital punishment for all offences, 11 for all offences except under special circumstances, and 32 others have not used it for at least 10 years. A total of 64 countries retain it. Among retentionist countries, several used capital punishment on juveniles (under 18). In 2006 Iran executed four child offenders and Pakistan one. The People's Republic of China performed more than 3,400 executions in 2004, amounting to more than 90% of executions worldwide. In China, some inmates are executed by firing squad, but it has been decided that all executions will be by lethal injection in the future. These lethal injections are often performed via mobile Iveco execution vans. Iran performed 159 executions in 2004.[3] In the United States, 12 states executed 59 prisoners in 2004.[4] Singapore has the highest execution rate per capita, with 70 hangings for a population of about 4 million.

Executions are known to have been carried out in the following 25 countries in 2006:

Bahrain, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, North Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Uganda, the United States of America, Vietnam, Yemen.[5]

In that year also, 91% of all known executions took place in six countries listed below:[5]

Most Executions carried out in 2006

  1. China (at least 1,010 based on publicly available reports, other sources suggest the real tally is between 7,500 and 8,000)[5]
  2. Iran (177)
  3. Pakistan (82)
  4. Iraq (at least 65)
  5. Sudan (at least 65)
  6. United States (53)

The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly restrained in retentionist countries. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and the U.S. are the only fully developed countries that have retained the death penalty. The death penalty was overwhelmingly practiced in poor and authoritarian states, which often employed the death penalty as a tool of political oppression. During the 1980s, the democratisation of Latin America (with its long history of progressive and Roman Catholic tradition) swelled the rank of abolitionist countries. This was soon followed by the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, which then aspired to enter the EU. In these countries, the public support for the death penalty varies but it is decreasing.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The European Union and the Council of Europe both strictly require member states not to practice the death penalty (see Capital punishment in Europe). On the other hand, rapid industrialisation in Asia has been increasing the number of retentionist countries that are developed. In these countries, the death penalty enjoys strong public support, and the matter receives little attention from the government or the media. This trend has been followed by some African and Middle Eastern countries where support for the death penalty is high.

Some countries have resumed practicing the death penalty after having suspended executions for long periods. Notably, the United States had suspended executions in 1973 but resumed them in 1977, there was no execution in India between 1995 and 2004, and Sri Lanka recently declared an end to its moratorium on the death penalty but has not performed any executions. The Philippines had re-introduced the death penalty in 1993 after abolishing it in 1987, but abolished it again in 2006.

Public opinion[]

Main article: Attitudes to capital punishment

International organisations[]

The United Nations introduced a resolution during the General Assembly's 62nd session calling for a universal ban.[6][7] The approval of a draft resolution by the Assembly’s third committee, which deals with human rights issues, voted 99 to 52, with 33 abstentions, in favour of the resolution on November 15, 2007 and was put to a vote in the General Assembly on December 18.[8][9][10] It passed a non-binding resolution (by a 104 to 54 vote, with 29 abstentions) by asking its member states for "a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty".[11]

A number of regional conventions prohibit the death penalty, most notably, the Sixth Protocol (abolition in time of peace) and the Thirteenth Protocol (abolition in all circumstances) to the European Convention on Human Rights. Most relevant operative international treaties do not require its prohibition for cases of serious crime, most notably, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This instead has, in common with several other treaties, an optional protocol prohibiting capital punishment and promoting its wider abolition.[12]

Several international organisations have made the abolition of the death penalty (during time of peace) a requirement of membership, most notably the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe. The EU and the Council of Europe are willing to accept a moratorium as an interim measure. Thus, while Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, and practices the death penalty in law, it has not made public use of it since becoming a member of the Council. Other states, while having abolished de jure the death penalty in time of peace and de facto in all circumstances, have not ratified Protocol no.13 yet and therefore have no international obligation to refrain from using the death penalty in time of war or imminent threat of war (Armenia, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Spain[13]). France is the most recent to ratify it (October 10, 2007) with the effective date of February 1, 2008.[14][15]

Turkey has recently, as a move towards EU membership, undergone a reform of its legal system. Previously there was a de facto moratorium on death penalty in Turkey as the last execution took place in 1984. The death penalty was removed from peacetime law in August 2002, and in May 2004 Turkey amended its constitution in order to remove capital punishment in all circumstances. It ratified Protocol no. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights in February 2006. As a result, Europe is a continent free of the death penalty in practice (all states but Russia, which has entered a moratorium, having ratified the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights), with the sole exception of Belarus, which is not a member of the Council of Europe. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has been lobbying for Council of Europe observer states who practice the death penalty, namely the U.S. and Japan, to abolish it or lose their observer status. In addition to banning capital punishment for EU member states, the EU has also banned detainee transfers in cases where the receiving party may seek the death penalty.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Among non-governmental organisations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are noted for their opposition to capital punishment.

Juvenile capital punishment[]

The death penalty for juvenile offenders (criminals aged under 18 years at the time of their crime) has become increasingly rare. The only countries still officially supporting the practice are Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, [How to reference and link to summary or text]. Since 1990, nine countries have executed offenders who were juveniles at the time of their crimes; China, D.R. Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United States and Yemen. China, Pakistan, the United States and Yemen have since raised the minimum age to 18.[16] Amnesty International has recorded 54 verified executions since then, in several countries, of both juveniles and adults who had been convicted of committing their offenses as juveniles.[17] China does not allow for the execution of those under 18; nevertheless, child executions have reportedly taken place.[18] The United States Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for offenders under the age of 16 in Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), and for all juveniles in Roper v. Simmons (2005). Starting in 1642 within British America, an estimated 365[19] juvenile offenders were executed by the states and federal government of the United States.[20]

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities.[21]

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids capital punishment for juveniles, has been signed and ratified by all countries except for the United States and Somalia.[22] The UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights maintains that the death penalty for juveniles has become contrary to a jus cogens of customary international law.


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The use of formal execution extends at least to the beginning of recorded history. Most historical records as well as various primitive tribal practices indicate that the death penalty was a part of their justice system. Communal punishment for wrongdoing generally included compensation by the wrongdoer, corporal punishment, shunning, banishment and execution. However, within a small community, crimes were rare and murder was almost always a crime of passion. Moreover, most would hesitate to inflict death on a member of the community. For this reason, execution and even banishment were extremely rare. Usually, compensation and shunning were enough as a form of justice.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

However, these are not effective responses to crimes committed by outsiders. Consequently, even small crimes committed by outsiders were considered to be an assault on the community and were severely punished. [How to reference and link to summary or text] The methods varied from beating and enslavement to executions. However, the response to crime committed by neighbouring tribes or communities included formal apology, compensation or blood feuds.

A blood feud or vendetta occurs when arbitration between families or tribes fails or an arbitration system is non-existent. This form of justice was common before the emergence of an arbitration system based on state or organised religion. It may result from crime, land disputes or a code of honour. "Acts of retaliation underscore the ability of the social collective to defend itself and demonstrate to enemies (as well as potential allies) that injury to property, rights, or the person will not go unpunished."[23] However, in practice, it is often difficult to distinguish between a war of vendetta and one of conquest.

For most of recorded history, capital punishments were often cruel and inhuman. Severe historical penalties include breaking wheel, boiling to death, flaying, slow slicing, disembowelment, crucifixion, impalement, crushing, stoning, execution by burning, dismemberment, sawing, decapitation, scaphism, or necklacing.

Elaborations of tribal arbitration of feuds included peace settlements often done in a religious context and compensation system. Compensation was based on the principle of substitution which might include material (e.g. cattle, slave) compensation, exchange of brides or grooms, or payment of the blood debt. Settlement rules could allow for animal blood to replace human blood, or transfers of property or blood money or in some case an offer of a person for execution. The person offered for execution did not have to be an original perpetrator of the crime because the system was based on tribes, not individuals. Blood feuds could be regulated at meetings, such as the Viking things.[24] Systems deriving from blood feuds may survive alongside more advanced legal systems or be given recognition by courts (e.g. trial by combat). One of the more modern refinements of the blood feud is the duel.

In certain parts of the world, nations in the form of ancient republics, monarchies or tribal oligarchies emerged. These nations were often united by common linguistic, religious or family ties. Moreover, expansion of these nations often occurred by conquest of neighbouring tribes or nations. Consequently, various classes of royalty, nobility, various commoners and slave emerged. Accordingly, the systems of tribal arbitration were submerged into a more unified system of justice which formalised the relation between the different "classes" rather than "tribes". The earliest and most famous example is Code of Hammurabi which set the different punishment and compensation according to the different class/group of victims and perpetrators. The Torah (Jewish Law), also known as the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Christian Old Testament), lays down the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, magic, violation of the Sabbath, blasphemy, and a wide range of sexual crimes, although evidence suggests that actual executions were rare.[25] A further example comes from Ancient Greece, where the Athenian legal system was first written down by Draco in about 621 BC: the death penalty was applied for a particularly wide range of crimes. The word draconian derives from Draco's laws.

Similarly, in medieval and early modern Europe, before the development of modern prison systems, the death penalty was also used as a generalized form of punishment. For example, in 1700s Britain, there were 222 crimes which were punishable by death, including crimes such as cutting down a tree or stealing an animal.[26] Thanks to the notorious Bloody Code, life in 18th century (and early 19th century) Britain was a hazardous place. For example, Michael Hammond and his sister, Ann, whose ages were given as 7 and 11, were reportedly hanged at King's Lynn on Wednesday, the 28 September 1708 for theft. The local press did not, however, consider the executions of two children newsworthy.[27]

Although many are executed in China each year in the modern age, there was a time in Tang Dynasty China when the death penalty was actually abolished altogether.[28] This was in the year 747, enacted by Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 712–756), who before was the only person in China with the authority to sentence criminals to execution. Even then capital punishment was relatively infrequent, with only 24 executions in the year 730 and 58 executions in the year 736.[28] Two hundred years later there was a form of execution called Ling Chi, slow slicing, or death by/of a thousand cuts, used in China from roughly 900 CE to its abolition in 1905.

Despite its wide use, calls for reform were not unknown. The 12th Century Sephardic legal scholar, Moses Maimonides, wrote, "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death." He argued that executing an accused criminal on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely "according to the judge's caprice." His concern was maintaining popular respect for law, and he saw errors of commission as much more threatening than errors of omission.

The last several centuries have seen the emergence of modern nation-states. Almost fundamental to the concept of nation state is the idea of citizenship. This caused justice to be increasingly associated with equality and universality, which in Europe saw an emergence of the concept of natural rights. Another important aspect is that emergence of standing police forces and permanent penitential institutions. The death penalty become an increasingly unnecessary deterrent in prevention of minor crimes such as theft. Additionally, in countries like Britain, law enforcement officials became alarmed when juries tended to acquit non-violent felons rather than risk a conviction that could result in execution.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The 20th century was one of the bloodiest of the human history. Massive killing occurred as the resolution of war between nation-states. A large part of execution was summary execution of enemy combatants. Also, modern military organisations employed capital punishment as a means of maintaining military discipline. In the past, cowardice, absence without leave, desertion, insubordination, looting, shirking under enemy fire and disobeying orders were often crimes punishable by death. One method of execution since firearms came into common use has almost invariably been firing squad. Moreover, various authoritarian states—for example those with fascist or communist governments—employed the death penalty as a potent means of political oppression. Partly as a response to such excessive punishment, civil organisations have started to place increasing emphasis on the concept of human rights and abolition of the death penalty.

Movements towards "humane" execution[]


Dr. Guillotin

In early New England, public executions were a very solemn and sorrowful occasion, sometimes attended by large crowds, who also listened to a Gospel message[29] and remarks by local preachers and politicians. The Connecticut Courant records one such public execution on December 1, 1803, saying, "The assembly conducted through the whole in a very orderly and solemn manner, so much so, as to occasion an observing gentleman acquainted with other countries as well as this, to say that such an assembly, so decent and solemn, could not be collected anywhere but in New England."[30]

Trends in most of the world have long been to move to less painful, or more "humane", executions. France developed the guillotine for this reason in the final years of the 18th century while Britain banned drawing and quartering in the early 19th century. Hanging by turning the victim off a ladder or by dangling him from the back of a moving cart, which causes death by suffocation, was replaced by "hanging" where the subject is dropped a longer distance to dislocate the neck and sever the spinal cord. In the U.S., the electric chair and the gas chamber were introduced as more humane alternatives to hanging, but have been almost entirely superseded by lethal injection, which in turn has been criticized as being too painful. Nevertheless, some countries still employ slow hanging methods, beheading by sword and even stoning, although the latter is rarely employed.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Execution by nitrogen asphyxiation was proposed in 1995 and appears occasionally in online discussions, but as of 2024 is not used by any nation.

See also: Cruel and unusual punishment

Abolitionism in different countries[]


Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria

File:Leopold II as Grand Duke of Tuscany by Joseph Hickel 1769.jpg

Peter Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, by Joseph Hickel, 1769

The death penalty was briefly banned in China between 747 and 759. In England, a public statement of opposition was included in The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, written in 1395. More recent opposition to the death penalty stemmed from the book of the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene ("On Crimes and Punishments"), published in 1764. In this book, Beccaria aimed to demonstrate not only the injustice, but even the futility from the point of view of social welfare, of torture and the death penalty. Influenced by the book, Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg, famous enlightened monarch and future Emperor of Austria, abolished the death penalty in the then-independent Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany), the first permanent abolition in modern times. On 30 November 1786, after having de facto blocked capital executions (the last was in 1769), Leopold promulgated the reform of the penal code that abolished the death penalty and ordered the destruction of all the instruments for capital execution in his land. In 2000 Tuscany's regional authorities instituted an annual holiday on 30 November to commemorate the event. The event is also commemorated on this day by 300 cities around the world celebrating the Cities for Life Day.

Abolition of the death penalty was not common and was viewed as unnecessary. The Roman Republic went out on a limb and banned capital punishment. In 1849, this made the Roman Republic the first ever to ban capital punishment. However, Venezuela followed suit and in 1863 abolished the death penalty and San Marino did so in 1865. The last execution in San Marino had taken place in 1468. In Portugal, after two legislative proposals, in 1852 and 1863, the death penalty was abolished in 1867.

In the United States, the state of Michigan was the first state to ban the death penalty, on March 1, 1847. The 160-year ban on capital punishment has never been repealed. Currently, 12 states of the U.S. and the District of Columbia ban capital punishment.

Capital punishment debate[]

Main article: Capital punishment debate

Capital punishment is often the subject of controversy. Opponents of the death penalty argue that it has led to irreversible miscarriages of justice, that life imprisonment is an effective substitute, and that it violates the criminal's right to life. Supporters believe that the penalty is justified for murderers by the principle of retribution, that life imprisonment is not an equally effective deterrent, and that the death penalty affirms the right to life by punishing those who violate it in the most strict form. While some arguments are about moral judgments, others are disagreements about empirical trends, such as whether the death penalty is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment.

Religious views[]

Views on capital punishment differ both between and within religions.

Main article: Religion and capital punishment

Methods of execution[]

Main article: List of methods of capital punishment

See also[]

External links[]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

Resources opposing capital punishment[]

Resources favoring capital punishment[]

Religious views on the death penalty[]


  1. Shot at Dawn, campaign for pardons for British and Commonwealth soldiers executed in World War I. Shot at Dawn Pardons Campaign. URL accessed on 2006-07-20.
  3. Penketh, Anne China Leads Death List as Number of Executions Around the World Soars. The Independent (UK). URL accessed on 2007-03-13.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Death Sentences and Executions in 2006. Amnesty International website. URL accessed on 2007-12-13.
  12. Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR. Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. URL accessed on 2007-12-08.
  20. Rob Gallagher, Table of juvenile executions in British America/United States, 1642–1959
  21. Supreme Court bars executing mentally retarded Law Center. June 25 2002
  22. UNICEF, Convention of the Rights of the Child - FAQ: "The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. Only two countries, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified this celebrated agreement. Somalia is currently unable to proceed to ratification as it has no recognized government. By signing the Convention, the United States has signaled its intention to ratify. but has yet to do so."
  23. Translated from Waldmann, op.cit., p.147.
  24. Lindow, op.cit. (primarily discusses Icelandic things).
  25. Schabas, William. The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81491-X.
  26. Almost invariably, however, sentences of death for property crimes were commuted to transportation to a penal colony or to a place where the felon was worked as an indentured servant/Michigan State University and Death Penalty Information Center
  27. History of British judicial hanging
  28. 28.0 28.1 Benn, Charles. 2002. China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517665-0. Page 8.
  29. Article from the Connecticut Courant (December 1 1803)
  30. The Execution of Caleb Adams, 2003

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