The Death Penalty In 2011: Three Things You Should Know

noose death penaltyEvery year around this time, Amnesty International releases its annual survey of capital punishment worldwide.

As in previous years, the report – Death Sentences and Execution 2011 – shows that support for executions continued to diminish, and that the U.S. is in the wrong company but moving in the right direction. There are three main takeaways from this years report.

1. Globally, the use of the death penalty remained in decline.  At the end of 2011 there were 140 countries considered abolitionist in law or practice (it’s now 141 with the addition of Mongolia), while only 20 countries were known to have put prisoners to death.  Only in the tumultuous Middle East was there an increase in executions.


U.S. in Top 5 For Executions Worldwide


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.


New Global Death Penalty Stats Out Today

A Challenge to the Outliers

Today we released our annual report on global death penalty statistics.

The good news: the world has made progress toward upholding the fundamental right to life by continuing to decrease the use of the death penalty.

The bad news: a handful of countries are carrying on business as usual and need to hear the message more clearly that the time for global abolition has come!

Interesting Facts from the Report:

  • In 2009, 139 countries were death penalty free in law or practice.  (This is up from 16 countries in 1977, when Amnesty began working to abolish the death penalty.)  Burundi and Togo joined the list in 2009.
  • Executions happened in only 18 countries last year with five accounting for the lion’s share: China (thousands), Iran (388), Iraq (120), Saudi Arabia (69) and the US (52).
  • We know of 718 executions that happened in 2009 in addition to thousands from China.  And we know that at least 17,118 lived under sentence of death.
  • Only one country in Europe retains the death penalty – Belarus.  No one was executed in the continent last year.

The Outliers:

China remains the world’s top executioner by the numbers, with thousands being executed in 2009 as in past years.  We didn’t give a number for China’s executions for 2009.  The numbers we’ve given in the past are estimates based on independent, verified reports, but have always been gross underestimates.  China’s government continues to keep this number a state secret; yet, without revealing their records they claim executions have decreased.  So this year, rather than risk a low-ball number being misused, we challenge China to publish the numbers and move toward abolition.

The Middle East and North Africa region continues to lead in executions, per capita.  Just as in China, places like Iran and Iraq used the death penalty to send political messages.  Opponents were silenced and political agendas were furthered with executions.  Between the eight weeks between President Ahmadinejad’s election and inauguration, 112 executions were carried out – almost a third of Iran’s total number of executions in 2009.  Fortunately, however, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco/Western Sahara and Tunisia did maintain longstanding moratoria on executions.

The US was the only country in the Americas and the only Western democracy to execute prisoners last year.  Fifty two people were put to death in the US last year, with Texas executing about half that number.  Overall, death sentences and executions have been on a downturn in the US in recent years and more state legislatures are seriously considering abolition.  Another welcome step was New Mexico’s repeal of the death penalty last March.  Fortunately, nine people were exonerated from death row, preventing wrongful executions.  This was another important sign for a public that needs to understand just how deeply flawed and broken the death penalty system truly is.  While there are glimmers of hope in the US for abolition, there is still a lot of work to be done to bring the “evolving standards of decency” up to international human rights standards.

We’re looking forward to the day, in the not very distant future, when dust collects on a series of annual reports we used to write about countries that once thought executing its citizens was an acceptable practice!

Help us work for that day!  Visit or email [email protected] to get involved.

Interim Secretary General of Amnesty International comments on the state of the death penalty in China.  View more video interviews »