Is the death penalty gradually disappearing?

Joël Tabury & Sophie Carreau
08 October 2019
In February 2019, the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty was held in Brussels. The congress brought together the various stakeholders of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the NGO Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort, as well as various political figures, including Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders.


Belgian involvement

Since abolishing the death penalty is at the heart of Belgium's values, Belgian diplomacy has always been very active on this issue. It regularly organises events such as this congress. It is engaged on several fronts in the fight against the death penalty, among other things by working together with NGOs who are active in this field. It has always taken a progressive approach towards countries that retain the death penalty among their repressive arsenals. If abolition is not feasible in the short term, Belgium recommends a moratorium on handing down the death penalty or carrying it out. If, despite everything, the death penalty continues to be enforced, Belgium demands that other human rights standards be respected, such as a fair and just trial.

Didier Reynders at the 7th Congress on the Abolition of the Death Penalty
© SPF Affaires étrangères/FOD Buitenlandse zaken

The congress

For three days in Brussels, abolitionists from all over the world shared their experiences to bolster the movement for the right to life. The congress served as a gathering place for the various ideas and initiatives of private companies who take an interest in the causes of their consumers. For example, refusing to supply products used in lethal injections to prison administrations or setting up campaigns to raise funds for abolitionist associations. The African continent also occupied a central place at the Congress, with significant representation (Burkina Faso, Congo, Guinea, and Gambia were present).


The death penalty, a colonial legacy…

In the majority of pre-colonial African communities, both in West and Southern Africa and in Berber communities, the pursuit of justice was based on respect for the matriarchal and patriarchal line. Throughout their life, an individual was doubly protected, both by their mother and father. This meant that the community leader, in taking a decision, had to go through them.

His role was primarily to maintain equilibrium in the community, by putting reparation mechanisms in place. When a member of the community had killed someone, and blood had been shed, the most serious sanction was often ostracism - the person was shunned. More rarely, when all reparation mechanisms had been exhausted or due to exceptional circumstances which made it difficult to restore the dignity of victims, the decision was taken to execute the perpetrator. But this sanction was seen as being so shameful that the execution was carried out in the greatest secrecy, usually in the private sphere.

But with colonisation, the death penalty was applied much more widely in Africa. First in North and West Africa with Arab colonisations, and then with European colonisation. The colonisers often used the death penalty as an external colonial instrument, first linked to the Arab-Muslim slave trade, then to triangular European trade and finally to colonial administration itself.

These executions were generally carried out in public, creating a form of ritual around them. The punishment was considered as a means of strengthening the ability to maintain order, held by the colonial power. It was argued that the death penalty acted as a deterrent.


… which became a dehumanising political weapon

Today, the deterrent argument is still used. The death penalty is used to silence opponents, to combat terrorism or drug trafficking, while there are alternatives, such as life imprisonment.

In general, the death penalty is imposed as a "solution" against violence. It is the so-called solution to destroy the root cause of evil. But history shows that, on the contrary, the death penalty is not an effective deterrent and actually increases the level of violence in society. The death penalty dehumanises and gives a certain "citizenship" to death.


Global state of play

In its 2018 Global death penalty figures report, published in April 2019, Amnesty International provides a global state of play. The published statistics relate to executions of which Amnesty International is aware, with the exception of China, where the figures continue to be classified as state secrets. It reveals that 78% of all executions recorded worldwide are carried out in four countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq.

There has also been an increase in the death penalty in some countries, including Belarus, the USA, Japan, Singapore and South Sudan, and an increase in the number of death sentences in other countries, such as Iraq, Vietnam and Egypt.

Moratoria on executions have been declared in Mauritania and Kenya. However, it is still possible to send people to death row, in particular due to anti-terrorism and anti-drug laws.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the death penalty is still frequently applied. However, in the 2006 Constitution, no derogation from the right to life is permitted under any circumstances. Despite this, death sentences are still handed down, exploiting inconsistencies between domestic legislation and the constitution.

In Cameroon, the death penalty is no longer carried out but continues to be used as a sentence. Here too, the fight against terrorism serves as a pretext for using the death penalty, ignoring the human rights which it violates.

In the Philippines, the abolitionist movement alternatively gains and loses ground. The death penalty has already been abolished twice, in 1994 and 2006, but the recent presidential elections saw it put back on the agenda as part of a political strategy.

Main trends around the world


Despite this, the current global trend is clearly in favour of abolition, with a 31% decrease in executions worldwide recorded by Amnesty International, notably thanks to the amendment to the anti-drugs law, which saw the number of executions recorded in Iran fall by 50%.

"Abolition Now" pannel
© SPF Affaires étrangères/FOD Buitenlandse zaken


The Americas

The United States, for its part, has declared the death penalty statute "unconstitutional" in the State of Washington. The Caribbean Court of Justice has also ruled that the obligation to impose the death penalty under article 2 of the law on crimes against individuals is unconstitutional.



Malaysia has declared a moratorium on executions and intends to review its legislation on the death penalty. In Pakistan, the number of executions has fallen by 77% compared to 2017. No executions have been reported in Bangladesh, but the scope of the death penalty has been extended to individuals connected to drug trafficking. For the second year in a row, Indonesia has not carried out any executions. Laos has reduced the scope of the death penalty to just 12 offences. The government of the Maldives intends to uphold the moratorium on executions, which has been in place for 60 years.


Europe and Central Asia

The Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have upheld their moratoria on executions.


Middle East & North Africa

There has been a sharp decline in the number of executions in Iran and Iraq. Overall, the number of executions recorded in the Middle East and North Africa fell by 41%: no executions were recorded in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, or the Palestinian Territories.


Sub-Saharan Africa

To continue this positive trend, Burkina Faso has abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes. The Gambia has made progress towards abolition: an official moratorium on executions has been declared. In Somalia, the number of people executed has significantly fallen. In Zimbabwe, an encouraging first step was taken by the President when he commuted the sentences of prisoners who had been on death row for more than ten years. At the same time, he reaffirmed his opposition to capital punishment.



All this shows a positive evolution towards a world in which the death penalty is fully abolished, although efforts are clearly still necessary. According to Maya Sahli Fadel, "what is important is to be able to raise public awareness of the need to preserve the right to life and move towards abolition. To achieve this, it will require support, i.e. politicians themselves and civil society organisations must have an awareness-raising discourse with the public, so that they can take on board the idea that the death penalty is cruel and discriminatory. When countries present their reports to the Commission, we invite those who are still retentionist to move towards a moratorium. But a state cannot just decree the abolition of the death penalty from one day to the next."

The World Coalition aims to strengthen the international dimension of the fight against the death penalty. Its ultimate objective is to achieve the universal abolition of the death penalty. To this end, it supports the work of its member organisations and coordinates international advocacy for abolition. The Coalition has also designated 10 October as World Day against the Death Penalty. It is a partner of the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, which is held every three years.

The French-speaking association ECPM (Ensemble contre la peine de mort) was behind the creation of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the World Congresses. As for Belgium, it supports the objective of universal abolition of the death penalty. It hosted and sponsored the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held in Brussels in early 2019.

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