The global fight against the death penalty – the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment – can feel like an uphill struggle. Every day seems to bring news of another execution in some part of the world, or of some leader trying to score political points by promoting the death penalty. But, the bigger picture tells a very different story.
Amnesty International has campaigned to end executions globally for more than 40 years, and the progress we have seen in this time is remarkable. In the early 1980s, some 40 countries worldwide were executing people every year – today, that number has dropped by almost 50 percent to 23. The number of states that keep the death penalty on their books has dwindled from 106 to 16 in roughly the same period.
Today, we released our annual report on the state of the death penalty worldwide, and one region, in particular, stands out as a beacon of hope – sub-Saharan Africa.
This is a part of the world where governments have steadily moved away from the death penalty for many years, and 2017 was no exception as Guinea became the 20th state in the region to abolish the death penalty for all crimes.
This welcome move had been long fought for by activists in the country and beyond. Souleymane Sow, an Amnesty International volunteer in Guinea, summed up the feeling of victory perfectly: “It was such an incredible achievement – and it showed the importance of people power.”
Elsewhere in the region, the battle is still being fought but progress is clear. Burkina Faso and Chad took steps to repeal the death penalty with new or proposed new laws, while Kenya abolished the mandatory death penalty for murder.
It’s a testament to the power of the abolitionist movement that this positive trend was mirrored across the globe. The total number of executions recorded worldwide in 2017 stood at 993, a drop of four percent from 2016, and an impressively 39 percent from the historical peak in 2015. We also saw a significant decrease in death sentences being handed down worldwide, from at least 3,117 in 2016 to 2,591 in 2017.
Many countries also took positive steps. Mongolia abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and Guatemala introduced legal reforms which made it the 142nd country to have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. We also saw countries whose highest authorities had pledged to use the death penalty as a “quick fix” to tackle crime refrain from carrying out executions, such as Indonesia.
The top five executing countries in the world are a depressingly familiar list - China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.
Executions in the United States remained at the same record-low levels of the last few years. We even saw welcome moves in some of the world’s most staunch executing countries. In Iran, for example, the number of people known to have been put to death dropped by 11 percent, while authorities took steps to limit the use of the death penalty for drug crimes. Malaysia took limited but encouraging steps towards amending its harsh drug laws, some of which call for the mandatory death penalty for certain crimes.
But it was not all good news. As long as the death penalty remains an option, there will be cause for concern – and 2017 was no different. Although the countries which still execute are an increasingly isolated minority, some remain entrenched executioners. The top five executing countries in the world are a depressingly familiar list – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan. We believe that thousands of people were executed in China, but as death penalty figures are classified as a state secret, the true numbers are impossible to determine.
Disturbingly, many countries are still using the death penalty as an ill-conceived tool to tackle drug use. At least 15 countries imposed death sentences for drug-related offences, and at least four put people to death for such crimes. In Singapore, drug-related executions jumped from two in 2016 to eight last year. Such executions and sentences are not just a violation of international law – which bans the death penalty for all but “the most serious crimes” – they also fly in the face of all evidence. There is nothing to suggest that the death penalty has more of a deterrent effect on tackling crime than life imprisonment.
The South African anti-apartheid and human rights activist Desmond Tutu is one of many who has been at the forefront of the struggle to end the death penalty. Drawing on his own experiences from apartheid-era South Africa, when the country had one of the highest execution rates in the world, he has poignantly written: “The time has come to abolish the death penalty worldwide … Everywhere experience shows us that executions brutalise both those involved in the process and the society that carries them out. Nowhere has it been shown that the death penalty reduces crime or political violence.”
It is time for the rest of the world to take this message to heart, and follow the path of so many sub-Saharan African states by ending this cruel punishment once and for all.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.