Abolition of the Death Penalty: A Legal Anachronism!

the prisoner foresees a bleak future because of his death sentence and hopes for the abolition of the death penalty


The need to abolish the death penalty has been a topic of international discourse for centuries. Some jurisdictions view the concept of capital punishment as an anachronism and, thus, have abolished the death penalty. Yet, some world countries and jurisdictions still uphold the death penalty as a just punishment for certain crimes.

Is the death penalty a means of ensuring criminal justice? Does the death penalty act as a deterrence to crime? What punishment can replace the death penalty to prevent crimes? These are some questions associated with discussions concerning the abolition of the death penalty. 

Here we will explore the concept of the death penalty, the international framework of the death penalty, and the need for the abolition of the death penalty.

Evolution and Development of the Death Penalty

A prisoner standing behind the bars and asking for Abolition of the Death Penalty

The death penalty dates back to ancient savagery and military intervention, which once marked the political landscapes of modern nations in the annals of their history.

The evolution of the death penalty dates back to the Eighteenth century in Babylon. The Hammurabi code of Babylon prescribed the death penalty for over 20 offenses. It was punishment for crimes like theft and perjury. The first recorded death sentence case dates back to the 16th century B.C. in Egypt.

In the fourteenth century B.C., the Hittite code contained the death penalty and was a punishment for sexual crimes. According to the Draconian code, the death penalty in the seventh century was a punishment for every crime. In the 5th century B.C., the Roman law of the Twelve Tables also contained the death penalty. The death penalty in this era was in the form of beheading, stoning, and crucifixion, to name a few.

The death penalty practice of hanging became the norm in Britain in the Tenth Century A.D. The arrival of European settlers in the New World introduced the death penalty practice in America. By this means, Britain’s death penalty practice influenced America’s. As people spread worldwide, the death penalty was introduced in new parts of the world.

A Global Perspective on the Abolition of the Death Penalty

Unfortunately, most nations today still practice this anachronism alongside other practices like abortions and shootings of unarmed civilians by government forces. Also, while law enforcement does not have the power to enforce such punishment, the religious court systems like the sharia court system often pass orders of capital punishment for crimes like rape, sodomy, etc.

The Global perspective on the death sentence is that it violates the Fundamental human right to life. It is a practice that cheapens human life and is inconsistent with the renewed emphasis placed on human rights by the United Nations and Human Rights Activists worldwide. It has led to the decline and abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

There are still some countries that practice the death penalty. Most populated countries and countries with authoritarian rule still practice the death penalty. Yet, about 180 countries, according to Amnesty International, have abolished the death penalty. It is time for parliaments around the world to emulate the steps taken by the parliament in Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea abolished the death penalty earlier this year, 2022.

Using the death penalty by a country like Singapore for non-violent offenses violates international human rights law. It is necessary to amend or repeal the notorious Misuse of Drugs Act (Cap 185, 2008 Rev Ed) in Singapore, which prescribes the death penalty for drug-related offenses.

Where Do Most Executions Take Place?

A handcuffed prisoner pleading for abolition of the Death Penalty

According to Amnesty International, most executions occur in China, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. China remains the world’s leading executioner. However, the true extent of the death penalty in China is unknown. It is because China conceals its data on the death penalty in China as a state secret.

According to Amnesty International, there was an increase in global execution from 483 in 2020 to 579 in 2021. Also, the known number of death sentences increased from 1,477 in 2020 to 2,052 in 2021. The figures stated do not include the execution and death sentences in China due to a lack of information on the death penalty. There was also restricted access to information from countries like North Korea and Vietnam.

Amnesty International recorded executions in 18 countries, the highest figures being from Iran (314+), Egypt (83+), Saudi Arabia (65+), and Syria (24+). Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia recorded 80% of all known executions. North Korea, Viet Nam, and China, which are known to execute thousands of people, are not willing to disclose information about their execution rates.

Rationale for the Abolition of the Death Penalty

There has been a clamor for the abolition of the death penalty the world over. Most executions take place in public; this offends the victim’s right to human dignity. Besides, the emotional and psychological pain suffered by family members of a victim who is to face the death penalty cannot be over-flogged.

A need for the abolition of the death penalty is born from the irreversible nature of the death penalty. The probability of executing an innocent victim is high and cannot be reversed. According to Amnesty International, 184 prisoners on death row in the USA have been released on the ground of innocence. Other victims were executed despite doubts about their guilt.

A hanging rope for prisoers whose petition has been denied for death penalty

Some countries use the death penalty as a tool for political and discriminatory purposes. Other countries use it to punish political opponents. In some instances, receiving a death sentence may depend on one’s socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic background. It will seem that the poor without access to good legal representation or a black as against a white may be more likely to receive a death sentence.

In some countries, retentionists argue that the death penalty acts as a crime deterrence. It has not been proven that the death penalty is more effective in reducing crime than any other punishment method, for example, life imprisonment. There is, thus, a need for the abolition of the death penalty.

International Frameworks on the Death Penalty

A meeting on general assembly on discussing the framework on Death penalty

International instruments do not proscribe against the death penalty. Nonetheless, most international and regional human rights instruments encourage the death penalty’s abolition. These treaties and conventions provide the death penalty as an exception to the right to life only in limited circumstances. Likewise, International customary law does not prohibit the death penalty, yet the world is shifting towards the abolition of the death penalty.

Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that States can impose the death sentence only for the most severe crimes.

The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the Death Penalty, adopted under the auspices of the United Nations, came to force in 1991. The treaty provides that each member state party take necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.

The Sixth Protocol to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Concerning the abolition of the Death Penalty came into effect in 1985. This treaty allows the death penalty for acts committed during war or acts that are an imminent threat to war. Many countries are signatories to these international treaties that ban or limit capital punishment.

Likewise, a series of resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly has advocated that states implement a moratorium on the death penalty, restrict its use of the death penalty and reduce the number of offenses that are punishable by death.

In recent years, there have been international campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty, and many countries have become abolitionists. International pressure is exerting on nations that still enforce capital punishment legally, potentially leading to the abolition of the death penalty in all countries.

What Could Replace the Death Penalty to Prevent Crimes?

Using the death penalty as a punishment deprives victims of reformation opportunities. Criminals who spend their time in prison and have their liberty curtailed could undergo reformation; however, capital punishment leaves no room for this opportunity. Therefore, there is a need to replace the death penalty with alternative sentences.

A life sentence with or without parole eliminates the risks associated with a death sentence. An example of such risk is the danger of executing innocent people. Some scholars argue that life imprisonment without parole is as harsh a punishment as the death penalty. They opine that life imprisonment without parole challenges the right to human dignity. It also eliminates the option of rehabilitation.

Long-term imprisonment for a fixed number of years may also replace the death penalty. States may decide to adopt other methods to prevent crimes asides from punishment. States may also adopt restorative justice and crime-fighting technologies to prevent crimes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does International Law Prohibit the Death Penalty?

No, International law does not prohibit the death sentence if a state’s criminal laws provide the death sentence as a punishment for the most severe crimes.

Does the Death Penalty Prevent Crime?

It has not been proven that the death penalty deters crime more than a prison sentence or any other alternative form of punishment.


As an issue of discourse, the death penalty has moved into the ambit of International human rights. It is viewed globally as inhuman and degrading. There is a general clamor for the abolition of the death penalty. In the words of the Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, “Globally, the death penalty has not been proven to be an effective deterrent, but individuals on death row, as well as their families, have suffered a range of human rights violations”. Several international treaties and customs point to a worldwide movement toward the abolition of the death penalty.

In recent years, international pressure has been exerted on countries that retain the death penalty, leading to the abolition of the death penalty in more countries. Any modern legal system should discard the death penalty as a form of punishment!

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