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Worldwide Abolition of Capital Punishment Starts with the United States

By Maegan Taback


Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, tends to be a divisive subject. Proponents of the death penalty argue that it ensures justice, and many believe it equates to the severity of the crime committed. However, those opposed to the practice rightfully claim that it is inhumane and that the state should not be able to choose who lives and dies. For one, there are many racial and economic disparities associated with capital punishment, emphasizing that it is not, in fact, a fair and just method of punishment. Furthermore, the death penalty is the preferred punishment of repressive regimes. The death penalty is inhumane and needs to be abolished, and it has no place in the modern world. Yet, the United States refuses to let go of the practice, so it is unlikely that other countries will eliminate it any time soon. In order to pursue true criminal justice and abolish the death penalty, the U.S. must take lead in initiating change, and the international arena should increase pressure on practicing countries.

The Facts

The death penalty is as old as governance itself. Many young empires and nation-states codified killing as a form of punishment. Hamurabi’s Code, for example, developed the “eye for an eye” system, enforcing the idea that punishments should equate to the crime committed. As empires grew, this principle became widespread and was eventually solidified in the modern world through colonization. As such, when the British settled colonial America, they instilled the death penalty in its justice system. Until the 1980s, capital punishment was regularly used across the world. In 1983, Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights and many protocols following were enacted to encourage abolition of the death penalty. As an enforcement mechanism, the Council of Europe requires its members to ratify these measures, which has led to widespread abolition in Europe. Throughout the next two decades, many European states began to change their laws, outlawing the practice. In 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a resolution, which called on countries that still used the practice to outlaw it. Many countries voted against it—notably the U.S., China, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Sudan. The UN has passed similar resolutions year after year but has failed to encourage some states to comply.

With the help of NGOs like Amnesty International, we can gather some information about how countries compare in terms of executions. In 2021, China alone carried out 1,000 executions as the world’s top executioner, with Iran in second place at an estimated 314 executions. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, the United States, and South Sudan all rank within the top ten. In China, most executions are carried out without public knowledge, and the state has yet to move away from firing squads. Iran has executed minors and its judicial system does not limit the death penalty to serious crimes. However, some of the worst purveyors of the death penalty are not accurately captured by public data. With a tendency to underreport or outright withhold information, many autocratic countries, like Vietnam, North Korea, China, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka, do not publish accurate figures. Still, we can work with the data that we do have, especially since the United States is more transparent than other practicing countries. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were at least 483 executions in 18 countries in 2020. In 2019, the United States carried out seventeen executions, making it the sixth most recorded country in the world. Furthermore, Amnesty International recorded 579 executions in 2021, a 20% increase from the 483 recorded in 2020.

As the only democratic state there, the United States is an outlier among countries with the most confirmed executions in 2020. This list also includes China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, while several countries are left unknown due to a lack of accurate data. This list differs significantly from the countries with the most death sentences; that list includes China, Yemen, Egypt, Zambia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and India. China and Egypt are on both of these lists, indicating that they might have the most significant problem when it comes to combating the death penalty. However, these lists pose an interesting discrepancy. While some countries might carry out more executions, other countries may have less turnover on their respective ‘death row’ than other countries, which points to the failures in their criminal justice system. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have increased their number of executions. Iran and Yemen have both executed civilians below the age of 18, and China and Iran have executed for drug related offenses. This data is alarming, especially since many of these countries are regional and even world leaders. With execution numbers only increasing, we can expect this problem to worsen.

The Death Penalty is Applied Unfairly

Racial Disparities

Racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing exist across the world. In the United States in particular, race plays a large role in determining whether or not a defendant is executed. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, people of color have accounted for 43% of the executions conducted since 1976, and another study found that Black and Hispanic people account for 53% of death row inmates. However, Black and Hispanic people only represent 31% of the population, revealing large overrepresentation in this system. In addition to the color of the defendant’s skin, the race of the victim plays a large role, as well. Although white victims make up about 50% of total murder victims in the country, 80% of all capital punishment cases involve white victims. It appears evident that racial discrimination impacts who faces capital punishment in the United States. In a landmark Supreme Court case, Miller-El v. Cockrell, the Court ruled that defendants should be allowed to prove that a death sentence is attributed to discriminatory prejudices. Still, while there have been efforts on this matter, racial disparities continue to play a large role in death penalty sentencing. If the death penalty isn’t applied equally to all defendants, then it does not ensure justice is served.

Economic Disparities

The U.S. is not the only country with a biased judicial system; economic disparities are also significant across many practicing countries. The United Nations has found that across countries, those from poorer communities are more vulnerable to capital punishment than those from wealthier communities. According to a U.S. Appeals Court judge, over 99% of those on death row are poor. Faced with limited resources, those of lower socioeconomic status rarely can afford an experienced lawyer and often receive a low-quality legal defense. Hence, those who live in poverty in countries like Pakistan, the United States, China, Malaysia, Malawi, and Nigeria are at a significant disadvantage in the judicial system. Those unable to afford the resources needed to ensure their freedom make easy targets when it comes to prosecution. One’s income does not make them more or less likely to commit such severe crimes, revealing significant disparities within the justice system. Such a system is not effective if it does not treat its citizens equally.

The Role of the United States

In most of the countries where the death penalty is applied, the practice is not used to ensure the justice that officials claim it upholds. Instead, it is used to fuel the strength of authoritarianism. This makes the United States’ position especially significant as an outlier. As the leader of the free world and a proclaiment of justice, the U.S. should stand opposed to systems that are riddled with disparities, that needlessly kill innocents, and that serve as a tool of autocrats. Given that the practice is typically used by repressive regimes, capital punishment frequently serves to strengthen the legitimacy of the regime. Many countries, such as China and Iran, use this practice to smother dissent and invoke fear among civilians. With abuse running rampant in these countries, the use of capital punishment simply adds to the list. In these countries, people can be executed for crimes less than murder. For example, executions may be implemented for drug use, theft, and opposing the regime. These harsh punishments are intended to serve as a deterrent for opposition and enforce compliance.

Authoritarian regimes frequently use the death penalty as a means to abuse human rights. Many practices within their criminal justice systems are unjust and unfair. The use of capital punishment for citizens under the age of 18 is prohibited under international human rights law. However, this doesn’t stop some countries from executing minors. Since 1990, Amnesty International reported 158 executions of citizens who were children when convicted. While some countries have since changed their laws, others, like Iran, continue to put children at risk.

The U.S. is one of the most influential countries in the world—it is a leading democracy and a major superpower on the UN Security Council. Yet, it is the only western democracy that continues to use this practice, claiming that it promotes justice. In reality, however, the system within the U.S. is riddled with injustice due to racial and wealth disparities. If the U.S. is unwilling to change, it is unlikely to be able to convince other countries to do so.


Adding to the argument that the death penalty needs to be abolished, history has proven that many of those sentenced to death might actually be innocent. Previous techniques for obtaining and analyzing evidence are updated and are sometimes proven inaccurate, meaning that we are increasingly privy to details that may change a case. For those who have been executed, however, there is no possibility of freedom even if they are exonerated. For example, since 1973, over 190 death row prisoners in the United States have been found innocent. To put this in perspective, 1,548 prisoners have been executed within this time period. Furthermore, it is estimated that for every eight people executed, one death row inmate has been exonerated.


Amnesty International has found some promising information for the elimination of the practice. As of today, 170 countries have abolished the death penalty or do not practice it. Overall, the practice is slowly declining. Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, and Papua New Guinea have all recently made strides toward abolishing the practice. In Sierra Leone, for example, the existence of a human rights commission and the work of NGOs proved to be effective, as their efforts are what ultimately ended the practice. At the end of 2021, more than 2/3rds of the world’s countries had abolished the death penalty.

Despite these positive developments, it is unlikely that capital punishment will go away any time soon. With the United States, a world superpower and leading democracy, unwilling to end the practice, it is unlikely that other countries will make a change. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot the international community can do to change the laws specific to sovereign countries. However, there are some measures that can be taken.

The death penalty is a norm in many countries and a longstanding part of their political process. If abolishing the practice is not a possibility, there needs to be more emphasis on making sure executions are fair and do not abuse human rights. Judicial systems can accomplish this by eliminating biases, outlawing executions for political reasons, and monitoring implementation of the practice. Smothering dissent in an attempt to maintain legitimacy does not ensure justice. If capital punishment is to be used at all, it must be applied only to cases that endanger a country’s citizens, indiscriminate of other factors. Of course, the practice itself is still entirely unjust.

There is always, however, the possibility that the United States will eventually end the practice. While still widely contested, 37 states have abolished capital punishment or have not carried out an execution in the past ten years, but a ban has yet to make its way to the federal level. As a democratic country, the U.S. has more room to change some of its laws through congressional turnover and frequent voting. Although a majority of Americans support the death penalty, 78% believe there is a risk of innocent people being wrongfully executed. Advocacy efforts could shift the attitudes of these citizens, with the potential to turn more Americans against the practice. If a strong country like the United States eliminates the death penalty, other countries might be willing to follow suit. As a superpower, the U.S. has a large voice in the international arena. Its advocacy would undoubtedly add strength to the fight against the death penalty and could provide resources to further examine hidden usage of the practice by authoritarian regimes.

International pressure is also important—and if the United States joins the fight against the death penalty, it can even be increased. If superpowers and international organizations work to uncover death penalty usage in repressive regimes and use the tactic of “shaming,” these efforts could eliminate the practice entirely. This tactic was certainly effective in Sierra Leone, where the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendations eventually led to abolition after the implementation of the practice was heavily monitored. If these efforts were repeated, strengthened, and applied to other countries, we could see effective change. These tactics are critical in putting an end to capital punishment once and for all.



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