First, the good news. In 1961, the year Amnesty International was founded, only 9 countries had completely abolished the death penalty (10 if you count West Germany). By 1977, the year Amnesty International simultaneously won the Nobel Peace Prize and took up death penalty abolition as a priority human rights cause, there were still only 16 such countries (plus West Germany).
Since then, there has been a sea change. As documented in Amnesty International’s new report on Death Sentences and Executions in 2010, 96 countries have fully abolished capital punishment, while only 58 actively retain it (and only 23 carried out executions in 2010). The remaining 43 nations have the death penalty on the books, but do not really use it. So, basically, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries are living without the death penalty. (And thanks to Illinois, so are almost one-third of U.S. states.)
But 1977 was also the year that the United States resumed executions after a ten-year hiatus. During the next couple of decades, while most of the rest of the world was beginning to see the death penalty as a fundamental violation of human rights, the U.S. was pursuing executions in greater and greater numbers. And while executions and death sentences have declined significantly in the U.S. over the last decade, the use of capital punishment has been collapsing at a much faster rate worldwide, so that in 2010, once again, the U.S. ranked in the top 5 of the world’s most prolific executioners.