What is capital punishment?
Capital punishment is the use of the death penalty by the state.
There are various methods of enforcing the death penalty. The most widely used Western techniques are hanging, lethal injection, and electrocution, but stoning, beheading and shooting are still used in some parts of the world.
The punishment has been largely reserved for only the most serious offences, such as murder or treason.
The use and legality of the death sentence has been in steady decline since the turn of the 20th Century, but many countries retain the penalty.
Although abolished in the UK, several Commonwealth jurisdictions still have the death penalty and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London remains the final court of appeal for these cases.
In the 1500s, eight capital crimes were formally defined, including treason, petty treason, murder, robbery, larceny, rape and arson.
Under the Murder Act 1752 a person convicted of murder was to be hanged within 48 hours. Public hanging was ended by the Prisons Act of 1868. The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 prohibited the use of the death penalty for anyone aged under 18 at the time of their offence.
In April 1948, the House of Commons voted to suspend capital punishment for five years, but this decision was overturned by the House of Lords.
In 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act abolished capital punishment for all offences, except treason, piracy with violence and arson in Royal Dockyards, all of which remained capital crimes. This was confirmed in 1969, after a quinquennial review of the law.
The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, banning capital punishment for murder except "in times of war or imminent threat of war". In January 1999, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw signed the Sixth Protocol of the ECHR, formally abolishing the death penalty in peacetime and in December that year, the Government ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This was followed by ratification of Protocol 13 in 2002, thereby totally abolishing capital punishment in Britain, including during times of war.
The death penalty is felt by many to be a violation of the right to life guaranteed by the ECHR and the ICCPR. On an ethical level, capital punishment opponents argue that the death penalty is little more than state-sponsored murder, which is as morally reprehensible as the crime itself.
There are also concerns about the irrevocable nature of the punishment, given the potential fallibility of the criminal justice system. The posthumous pardons of individuals such as Derek Bentley (in 1998) illustrate the problem. However, the evolution of forensic science and the use of DNA evidence may give this argument a more frail foundation.
Although many groups campaign against any re-introduction of capital punishment, its restoration remains popular with the public. Those in favour of its re-introduction cite natural justice and its value as a deterrent.
However, this apparent public support is not mirrored in the political establishment and any movement to re-introduce the penalty would be unlikely to survive a vote in the House of Commons. Indeed, despite three 'free' votes in the last 20 years, MPs have rejected all calls for its restoration.
Furthermore, the death penalty is clearly contrary to the UK's current international legal obligations.
In November 2010 the UN General Assembly renewed its call for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Whilst noting ongoing national debates and regional initiatives on the death penalty, the UN called upon States to restrict the use of the death penalty, to reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed, and "to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty". States that had abolished the death penalty were called on not to re-introduce it. A draft resolution was approved by a vote of 107 in favour to 38 against, with 36 abstentions.
The Coalition government launched a new strategy on the 'Global Abolition of the Death Penalty' in October 2010. Its stated goals are:
to further increase the number of abolitionist countries, or countries with a moratorium on the use of the death penalty; further restrictions on the use of the death penalty in retentionist countries and reductions in the numbers of executions; to ensure EU minimum standards are met in countries which retain the death penalty.
The Government said it intended to work to achieve these objectives through three main channels; bilateral initiatives, the EU, and the UN. Foreign Office minister Lord Howell acknowledged that 22 Commonwealth countries still retained the death penalty. He agreed this was "very worrying" and said the Government would seek to expand work on abolition in that particular area.
The Death Penalty Expert Group, which was created as a sub group of the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Group on Human Rights, held its first meeting at the end of January 2011. The group said its objectives would be to gain advice from experts drawn from academia, the legal profession, NGOs and Parliament "in order to help shape the implementation of the Government’s strategy towards abolition."
During its first meeting, headed by Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne, the group discussed how to make progress towards abolition in Kenya, Japan and the Caribbean.
Countries which continue to use the death penalty are being left increasingly isolated following a decade of progress towards abolition.
A total of 31 countries abolished the death penalty in law or in practice during the last 10 years but China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Yemen remain amongst the most frequent executioners, some in direct contradiction of international human rights law.
The total number of executions officially recorded by Amnesty International in 2010 went down from at least 714 people in 2009 to at least 527 in 2010, excluding China.
China is believed to have executed thousands in 2010 but continues to maintain its secrecy over its use of the death penalty.
In the USA, the only country in the Americas to carry out executions, at least 110 death sentences were imposed during 2010 but this represents only about a third of the number handed down in the mid-1990s. And in March 2011, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.
In 2010 Amnesty International was not able to confirm comprehensive figures on the use of the death penalty for China, Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore and Viet Nam although executions were known to have been carried out in all these countries. Available information from five other countries in the region confirmed at least 82 executions were carried out in Asia.
Eleven countries imposed death sentences but continued not to carry out executions in 2010: Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, India, Indonesia, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The Pacific Islands remained free from death sentences and executions.
In January 2010 the President of Mongolia announced a moratorium on executions with a view to abolition of the death penalty.
Europe and Central Asia:
After a year’s hiatus in 2009 when for the first time no executions were recorded in Europe and the former Soviet Union, in March 2010 the Belarusian authorities carried out two executions. Three new death sentences were imposed in Belarus in 2010.
Middle East and North Africa:
Fewer death sentences and executions were recorded in total in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 than in 2009. However, where the death penalty was imposed it was frequently used after unfair trials and for offences, such as drug-trafficking or adultery, which are not recognized as the “most serious crimes” and therefore in violation of international law.
The authorities of Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco/Western Sahara, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates imposed death sentences but continued to refrain from carrying out executions.
The Iranian authorities acknowledged the execution of 252 people, including five women and one juvenile offender in 2010. Amnesty International received credible reports of more than 300 other executions which were not officially acknowledged, mostly in Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad. Most were of people convicted of alleged drugs offences. Fourteen people were publicly executed. Death sentences continued to be imposed in large numbers.
In 2010 one more African country, Gabon, abolished the death penalty, bringing the number of abolitionist countries among African Union members to 16.
Four countries were known to have executed in sub-Saharan Africa in 2010: Botswana (1), Equatorial Guinea (4), Somalia (at least 8) and Sudan (at least 6).
Source: Amnesty International – 2011
"Abolition of the death penalty is an area that the Government is keen to emphasise and put at the forefront of its human rights agenda."
Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne, launching the first meeting of the Death Penalty Expert Group – 2011
"Amnesty International opposes the death penalty because it is a violation of two fundamental human rights, as laid down in Articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
the right to life, and
the right not to be tortured or subject to any cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
"The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. It is irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent. It has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than other punishments."
Amnesty International – 2012