Protesters at a vigil against the death penalty, Supreme Court, 2021, USA Protesters at a vigil against the death penalty, Supreme Court, 2021, USA  (2021 Getty Images)

Global executions surge to highest level in eight years

An Amnesty International report reveals the distressingly high number of people who were killed via capital punishment around the world in 2023.

By Francesca Merlo

The world has witnessed the highest number of annual deaths by capital punishment in eight years.

The international human rights NGO, Amnesty International’s latest annual report dedicated to the Death Penalty, published on 29 May, has revealed a harrowing increase in global executions. In fact, according to the report, in 2023, 1153 people were killed in 16 countries across the globe – a 30% increase since 2022.

As the world advances in the fields of technology and medicine, human rights continue to fall behind. Amidst wars, climate disasters and indifference, capital punishment is persistently seen as a viable form of punishment in so many countries across the globe, completely disregarding human life and the idea of rehabilitation, change and forgiveness.

Middle East

According to Amnesty International, the alarming increase in deaths in 2023 came predominantly from Middle Eastern nations, with Iran and Saudi Arabia at the forefront.

Iran alone was responsible for 74% of these executions, mostly for drug-related offences, while Saudi Arabia accounted for 15%.


State secrecy in Asia

Amnesty’s statistics do not include countries with stringent state secrecy, including many Asian nations like North Korea and Vietnam, which along with others are believed to have high execution rates.

North Korea has published a new law that includes the death penalty as a possible punishment for those who do not use the indigenous Korean language. Meanwhile, military authorities in Myanmar continue to impose death sentences in military-controlled courts, “in secretive and grossly unfair proceedings”, reads the statement.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard, condemned the authorities for their disregard for human life. “The small minority of countries that insist on using it must move with the times and abolish the punishment once and for all,” she said, adding that the death penalty will again come under scrutiny at this year’s UN General Assembly. Amnesty International urges all governments to rally behind the UN’s call to end the use of the death penalty in a vital show of commitment to human rights.”

Positive steps

Positive steps were seen, however, in other regions such as in Pakistan, where the death penalty for drug offences was repealed, and Malaysia, where the mandatory death penalty was abolished.

As of today, 112 countries are fully abolitionist and 144 in total have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

The United States

Far from making the progress it should be is the US. Amnesty International highlights the horrible reality surrounding capital punishment in the United States, which ranked in the top 5 for most executions carried out in 2023. “A select number of US states demonstrated a chilling commitment to the death penalty and a callous intent to invest resources in the taking of human life”, said Agnès Callamard. She recalled the first execution using Nitrogen gas, describing the use of this “cruel untested method” used to kill Kenneth Smith earlier this year, “just 14 months after subjecting him to a botched execution attempt”.

“President Biden must stop delaying his promise to abolish the federal death penalty”, she added.

The Popes and the Church

One of the world's biggest advocates for the abolition of the death penalty is the Catholic Church. In 1999, during his homily at a Mass in St Louis, Missouri, USA, Pope Saint John Paul II said "a sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. I renew the appeal I made for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary". 

Then, in 2018, under the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised to read that "in the light of the Gospel" the death penalty is "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person" and that the Catholic Church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

In September 2022 Pope Francis dedicated his monthly worldwide prayer intention to ending capital punishment. In his video, the Holy Father reiterated what he has said many times before: “Capital punishment offers no justice to victims, but rather encourages revenge. And it prevents any possibility of undoing a possible miscarriage of justice.” 

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30 May 2024, 12:51