Abolition of the death penalty

What is the death penalty?

The death penalty (also called capital punishment) is the deliberate killing of a person as legal punishment for a committed crime. 

In countries where the death penalty is lawful, not all crimes may be punished using this remedy. Only the most serious crimes (e.g., murder, aggravated rape, child sexual abuse) may be subject to the death penalty. 

Towards the abolition of the death penalty

The death penalty had been an acceptable punishment for a long time: up until the 1950s, most western European countries employed it. With the expansion of the human rights regime and the adoption of new legal instruments, the abolitionist movement gained strength in the 1960s and still persists. 

The value of human life was reconsidered during the 20th century, especially because of two devastating world wars. The outcome was the codification of the right to life and the prohibition of its arbitrary deprivation. Later, nations took yet another step forward and abolished the death penalty, considering it to be inhuman and cruel punishment that should not be imposed even for the most serious crimes. In other words, if there is a right to life that everyone enjoys simply by being a human, the death penalty cannot be reconciled with it. 

The main argument in support of abolition is the possibility of error. Since execution is irreversible, the standard of proof is very high – there should be absolute confidence, without a shade of doubt, that the convicted person is guilty. In reality, inadequate legal representation, procedural flaws or a lack of data may lead to errors in judgments. Courts may re-examine the cases in light of new evidence. However, if a person has been executed, there is no way to re-establish justice other than to recognise the mistake. In such cases, death penalty comes into conflict with the right to a fair trial. 

According to data from Amnesty International, in 1977 the death penalty had been abolished in 16 countries, whereas by the end of 2021 – in 108 countries.

In Latvia, the last executions took place in 1996. The death penalty in peacetime was abolished in 1999, and the death penalty in wartime – in 2012.   

note 10th October is the World Day Against the Death Penalty

International recognition of this prohibition

All Member States of the European Union have abolished the death penalty. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights provides in Article 2(2):

No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.

The European Convention on Human Rights has two Protocols related to the death penalty: Protocol No. 6 and Protocol No. 13. 

Protocol No. 6 prohibits the death penalty, but leaves the possibility of imposing it during wartime. Protocol No. 13 prohibits the death penalty in all circumstances, stating in the Preamble:

[…] the abolition of the death penalty is essential for the protection of this right and for the full recognition of the inherent dignity of all human beings. 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the other hand, does not contain a strict prohibition of the death penalty for adults, stating that: 

[i]n countries which have not abolished the death penalty, a sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime [...]

In context


Last updated 21/03/2024