Death Penalty and Human Rights

The death penalty is a denial of the most basic human right: that states must recognize the right to life. As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948):

Everyone is entitled to life, liberty and security of person

The death penalty is also violates UDHR Article 5, the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. Furthermore, the death penalty undermines human dignity that is inherent to every human being.

The UN General Assembly has called for an end to the death penalty and human rights organizations agree that its imposition breaches fundamental enshrined human rights norms. Many parts of the world are quickly moving towards a position in support of worldwide abolition of the death penalty worldwide: thirty-five years ago, only 16 countries had put an end to capital punishment for all crimes while today 139 have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Every year, most of the world’s executions take place in only a few countries, and the United States is among those frequent executioners. In fact, the US frequency of executions is matched (or exceeded) only by China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

However, human rights law falls short of condemning the death penalty altogether. It does, however, certain limits on the way in which the death penalty can be imposed, such as:[1]

  • may only be imposed for the most serious crimes, pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a court and providing it is not contrary to the provisions of human rights law e.g. not a crime of genocide.
  • anyone sentenced to death has the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence;
  • is not to be imposed on anyone below the age of 18 or over the age of 70, or carried out on pregnant women.
  • Should inflict the minimum possible suffering.

Situations of armed conflict

International law does not outlaw all kinds of warfare and violence. The right to life in such situations is not absolute. International humanitarian law seeks to impose restrictions on the way violence can be used at times of conflict. Certain categories of persons, civilians or combatants who have laid down their arms or are injured, are considered protected. The right to life of these categories is upheld and can be violated for example, by indiscriminate shelling or deliberate execution or denial of access to water, food or medicine.

Arguments against the Death Penalty

In addition to a human rights perspective, many arguments exist against the death penalty, such as:

  • It can never be mistake free: Error in a capital case is inevitable and an innocent person will be executed. In fact, DNA evidence has demonstrated the innocence of at least 17 death-row inmates since 1993, according to the Innocence Project.
  • It is discriminatory: The death penalty disproportionately falls on poor people and people of color. Although Blacks and Latinos make up only about 25% of the US population, they are more than 55 percent of the current death row population. The vast majority of people on death row are poor.
  • It is ineffectual: The death penalty is not an effective deterrent. States that use it don’t have lower murder rates than states that do not. Plus, life imprisonment would protect the public just as well as execution does.

Related Human Rights Documents

[1] See Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty;