Death Penalty

© Amnesty International/McCann Erickson Berlin
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Every day, people are executed by the state as punishment for a variety of crimes – sometimes for acts that should not be criminalized. In some countries it can be for who you sleep with, in others it is reserved for acts of terror and murder.

Some countries execute people who were under 18 years old when the crime was committed, others use the death penalty against people who suffer mental problems. Before people die they are often imprisoned for years on “death row”. Not knowing when their time is up, or whether they will see their families one last time.

The death penalty is cruel, inhuman and degrading. Amnesty opposes the death penalty at all times - regardless of who is accused, the crime, guilt or innocence or method of execution.

We have been working to end executions since 1977, when only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Today, the number has risen to 140 - nearly two-thirds of countries around the world.

We know that, together, we can end the death penalty everywhere. Hafez Ibrahim was about to be executed in Yemen in 2007 when he sent a mobile text message to Amnesty. It was a message that saved his life. “I owe my life to Amnesty. Now I dedicate that life to campaigning against the death penalty.”

Artwork on the wall of Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli, Libya. 15 March, 2014. © Amnesty International

The problem

Why the Death Penalty is wrong

Denial of human rights. Sentencing someone to death denies them the right to life – enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Irreversible and mistakes happen. Execution is the ultimate, irrevocable punishment: the risk of executing an innocent person can never be eliminated. Since 1973, for example, 150 US prisoners sent to death row have later been exonerated. Others have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt.

Does not deter crime. Countries who execute commonly cite the death penalty as a way to deter people from committing crime. This claim has been repeatedly discredited, and there is no evidence that the death penalty is any more effective in reducing crime than imprisonment.

The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.

Often used within skewed justice systems. Some of the countries executing the most people have deeply unfair legal systems. The ‘top’ three executing countries – China, Iran and Iraq – have issued death sentences after unfair trials. Many death sentences are issued after ‘confessions’ that have been obtained through torture.

Discriminatory. You are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority because of discrimination in the justice system. Also, poor and marginalized groups have less access to the legal resources needed to defend themselves.

Used as a political tool. The authorities in some countries, for example Iran and Sudan, use the death penalty to punish political opponents.

Amnesty is calling for

  • Countries that still use the death penalty immediately halt all executions.
  • Countries that have already stopped executing people, need to take this punishment off their legal books for all crimes, permanently.
  • All death sentences should be commuted to prison sentences.

The issue in detail

The death penalty breaches two essential human rights: the right to life and the right to live free from torture. Both rights are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948.

The following international laws explicitly ban use of the death penalty, except during times of war:

  • The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights
  • The Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The European Convention on Human Rights (Protocol No. 13) bans use of the death penalty at all times, even during war.

Although international law says that the death penalty can be used for the most serious crimes, like murder, Amnesty believes that the death penalty is never the answer.

The global view

Death sentences and executions 2015

Execution methods

There are many and varied types of execution used around the world today, including:

• Beheading
• Electrocution
• Hanging
• Lethal injection
• Shooting in the back of the head and by firing squad

Death sentences and executions 2015

2015 saw a dramatic rise in executions – the highest number recorded by Amnesty since 1989.

Read our latest annual review of the death penalty worldwide.

Further reading

Key facts


countries had completely abolished the death penalty by the end of 2015


people were executed in 2015 – up 54% on 2014 (excluding China)


of all executions recorded in 2015 took place in just 3 countries