The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is one of the most controversial and hotly debated topics in the world. Proponents of the death penalty often view it as an unpleasant, but necessary way to keep society safe from those who commit the most heinous crimes. Opponents of the death penalty often equate it with murder, point out that it does not lower homicide rates, and feel the ends cannot justify the means—especially when so many individuals are wrongly convicted. Whether a person deems the death penalty morally acceptable or not depends heavily on one's personal moral code, as well as their political stance.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 70% of the world's countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. As of July 2022, the most recent countries to outlaw the death penalty are Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea, whose laws abolishing capital punishment went into effect on 29 Dec 2021, and 22 Jan 2022 respectively. Malaysia is expected to follow suit later in 2022.
The list of nations that have abolished or suspended capital punishment is growing. Data from Amnesty International states that at the end of 2021, 108 countries (and growing) had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes, 144 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice, 28 countries had effectively abolished the death penalty by not executing anyone in the past 10 years, and 55 countries still retained the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
Countries that Permit the Death Penalty (Amnesty International 2021)*:
- Legal — Death penalty is legal and in use.
- Suspended — Death penalty is legal, but no executions have taken place in at least 10 years.
- Extreme Only — Death penalty is legal, but only used in extreme cases such as war crimes.
- Abolished — Death penalty is prohibited in all cases.
|Antigua and Barbuda||legal||Indonesia||legal||Qatar||legal|
|Bahrain||legal||Iraq||legal||Saint Kitts and Nevis||legal|
|Bangladesh||legal||Israel||extreme only||Saint Lucia||legal|
|Barbados||legal||Jamaica||legal||Saint Vincent & Grenadines||legal|
|Burkina Faso||extreme only||Laos||suspended||South Sudan||legal|
|Central African Republic||suspended||Lesotho||legal||Sudan||legal|
|Egypt||legal||Mauritania||suspended||Trinidad and Tobago||legal|
|El Salvador||extreme only||Morocco||suspended||Tunisia||suspended|
|Eritrea||suspended||Niger||suspended||United Arab Emirates||legal|
|Guatemala||extreme only||Papua New Guinea||abolished*||Zimbabwe||legal|
* Note: Sierra Leone and Kazakhstan passed laws abolishing capital punishment in 2021, but neither law took effect in time to change the countries' statuses on the Amnesty International 2021 list. Similarly, Papua New Guinea abolished the practice in January 2022. These countries should appear as "abolished" on the eventual 2022 list, and as such, have been updated here.
Death sentence data are often unofficial and underestimated
Illuminating as its data may be, Amnesty International emphatically cautions that many of the report's numbers are best-guess minimum estimates, and that the true numbers of executions, death sentences, and "death row" prisoners are actually much higher. This is due to the fact that several countries refuse to disclose detailed execution-related data, which makes it impossible to determine a precise count of executions and death sentences.
For example, China is known to execute thousands of people every year, making it the world's most prolific executor by a vast margin. However, specific information about these executions is considered a state secret and is not released to the public. As such, while it is known that China likely puts more people to death than the rest of the world combined, even experts can only speculate as to the full scope of China's use of capital punishment.
Moreover, while China may be the most obvious example of data secrecy, it is far from alone. Many other countries withhold or at least filter data on capital punishment, including North Korea, Vietnam, Syria, and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (since August 2021).
In another concerning development, several countries known to obscure death sentence data have also been accused of applying the death sentence in ways that violate international law. These include sentencing individuals to death for lesser crimes, such as drug offenses, and cases in which the defendants are underaged, demonstrably mentally ill, or given an unfair trial.
The declining use of the death sentence
Amnesty International's 2021 year-end report noted that 579 executions had been recorded worldwide, spread across 18 countries. While this total is 20% higher than the number of executions in 2020, it is worth noting that 2020's executions were slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and were the lowest since at least 2010. Overall, the worldwide use of capital punishment has trending sharply downward since its peak of approximately 1,600 known executions in 2015.
While the number of countries that executed individuals in 2021 (18, the lowest number on record) remained unchanged from 2020, the number of people sentenced to death rose. 2020 saw 1,477 new death sentences issued, but that number rose to 2,052 death sentences issued in 2021. This resulted in a year-end total of some 28,670 individuals known to be living under a sentence of death. Moreover, 82% of these individuals were held in just nine countries: Iraq (8,000+), Pakistan (3,800+), Nigeria (3,036+), USA (2,382), Bangladesh (1,800+), Malaysia (1,359), Viet Nam (1,200+), Algeria (1,000+), and Sri Lanka (1,000+).
Top 10 Countries that Conducted the Most Executions in 2021 (Amnesty International)
- China — 1000+
- Iran — 314+
- Egypt — 83+
- Saudi Arabia — 65
- Syria — 24+
- Somalia — 21+
- Iraq — 17+
- Yemen — 14+
- United States — 11
- South Sudan — 9+
Profiles of countries that use the death penalty
The Chinese government continues to be the world's leading executioner. Although the country's precise execution totals are a closely guarded state secret, they are estimated to be in the thousands annually. Unlike the United States, where death penalty cases are made public and execution dates are announced, the Chinese judicial system requires all death penalty executions to remain private and confidential. Even the families of the executed individuals are often not informed until after the execution has occurred.
China still employs firing squads to carry out the death penalty, a method that has fallen out of favor in most nations in favor of more ethical and reliable methods. The one other form of execution that Chinese officials can legally invoke is death by lethal injection, which is seen as more humane and painless than a gunshot in most other nations.
Precise totals for executions in Iran can be difficult to obtain, as some 88% of Iranian executions are carried out in secret. However, current estimates point to at least 246 executions in 2020 and at least 314 in 2021—including at least four individuals who were minors at the time of their crimes, which is a violation of international law.
Iran is also often accused of extracting forced confessions through torture, and is frequently criticized for applying the death sentence to less serious crimes. For example, an estimated 40% of executions in 2021 were for drug-related crimes, and another 4% were for religious offenses.
Executions in this African country increased greatly in frequency after the 2011 revolution, and particularly since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office in 2014. Many human rights organizations accuse the Egyptian governmenet of using executions, which are often conducted in secret after unfair trials and confessions obtained through torture, as a means of suppressing political dissent among the populace.
Another of the world's most frequent and secretive executors, Iraq is known for having overly vague and broad anti-terrorism laws—which require the convicted be sentenced to death. Similarly to the situation in Iran, the Iraqi legal system does not confine use of the death penalty to the most serious crimes. Instead, perpetrators of such crimes as smuggling of automobiles or antiquities, the theft of official government documents, army desertion, or "organizing for the purpose of pimping" may find themselves awarded with the death penalty. Another similarity to Iran is the tendency for convictions in Iraq to be based upon confessions obtained through force and torture. Most executions in Iraq are carried out by hanging.
The only country known to have carried out an execution by beheading in 2020, Saudi Arabia executed a reported 27 people in 2020—a significant reduction compared to the previous five years, in which a minimum of 146 people per year were executed. This reduction was attributed to several factors: the COVID-19 pandemic, the removal of the death penalty for drug-related offenses or against subjects who were underaged at the time of their crime, and the theory that the king declined to carry out executions while Saudi Arabia hosted the G-20 summmit.
Whatever the true reason for the decline, it appears to have been short-lived. Saudi Arabia executed 65+ people in 2021, then sparked international furor in March of 2022 with the mass execution of 81 people, the largest mass execution in the country's known history. As with many other execution-prone countries, the Saudi legal system is frequently criticized for its lack of transparency, its tendency to waive the rights of those on trial, and its use of torture to extract confessions.
As in China, execution dates in Japan are not announced to the public beforehand. Moreover, the timeline is also withheld from the inmates themselves until 1-2 hours before the execution is set to occur. Once an inmate has been executed, prison officials inform the public that the event has taken place.
The only method of execution used in Japan is hanging, and the subjects are blindfolded and adorned in a hood before the trap door is released to initiate the execution. Japan has hung 131 Death Row inmates between 1993 and 2021, but only six from 2019-2021. Most cases of the death penalty in Japan involve multiple murders. The few rare exceptions have been instances in which the criminal killed only one person, but the nature of the act was considered severe enough to warrant the death penalty.
The method of execution employed in South Korea varies according to the crime. In most cases, executions are carried out via hanging with a rope. However, if a criminal has been found guilty of criminal activity that affected the country's military in some way or another, they are subject to death by firing squad. This is a very violent and messy method which is considered a nonviable form of execution in many other countries.
As of late 2021, the number of prisoners on Death Row in South Korea was sixty people. Despite this number, the most recent execution in South Korea occurred in December 1997. Since that time, the only deaths among convicts on Death Row have been due to suicide or illness.
The United States
The death penalty was reenacted in the U.S. in 1976, and the U.S. has performed roughly 1,543 executions since that time. The overwhelming leader in executions is Texas, with 573 through 2021, followed by Oklahoma with 116 and Virginia with 113. For the past 12 years for which data is available (2009-2020), the U.S. has been the only country in the Americas to subject criminals to the death penalty.
An increasing number of U.S. states have abolished the death penalty, the latest (and 23rd in all) being Virginia on July 01, 2021. As of February 2022, the death penalty is legal in 27 of the 50 US states. Executions in the U.S. are carried out on a state level, although the federal government also participates in capital punishment when necessary.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 629 prisoners per 100,000 residents. This equates to more than 2 million prisoners in the United States. As of January 2022, 2,463 prisoners were currently sitting on Death Row in either national or state facilities in the United States, predominantly in California (692), Florida (330), and Texas (199). Prisoners often wait years, even decades on death row as their cases wind through the appeals process and other channels of bureaucracy.
Since 1976, the United States has employed five different methods of executing Death Row inmates. The overwhelming majority of executions are performed via lethal injection, which is the default method in nearly every state. However, electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squads may still be used on occasion.