The Death Penalty – Your Questions Answered

Does the death penalty stop crime? Does it give victims justice? Is there a humane way to execute? Get your facts straight about the death penalty with Amnesty’s top 10 FAQs on capital punishment.

1. Why does Amnesty International oppose the death penalty?

The death penalty violates the most fundamental human right – the right to life. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

The death penalty is discriminatory. It is often used against the most vulnerable in society, including the poor, ethnic and religious minorities, and people with mental disabilities. Some governments use it to silence their opponents. Where justice systems are flawed and unfair trials rife, the risk of executing an innocent person is ever present.

When the death penalty is carried out, it is final. Mistakes that are made cannot be unmade. An innocent person may be released from prison for a crime they did not commit, but an execution can never be reversed.

2. Don’t victims of violent crime and their families have a right to justice?

They do. Those who have lost loved ones in terrible crimes have a right to see the person responsible held to account in a fair trial without recourse to the death penalty. In opposing the death penalty, we are not trying to minimize or condone crime. But as many families who have lost loved ones have said, the death penalty cannot genuinely relieve their suffering. It just extends that suffering to the family of the condemned person. 

Revenge is not the answer. The answer lies in reducing violence, not causing more death.

Marie Deans, whose mother-in-law was murdered in 1972

3. If you kill someone else, don’t you deserve to die, too – “an eye for an eye”?

No. Executing someone because they’ve taken someone’s life is revenge, not justice.

An execution – or the threat of one –inflicts terrible physical and psychological cruelty. Any society which executes offenders is committing the same violence it condemns.

4. Doesn’t the death penalty prevent crime?

Not according to the research. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than a prison term. In fact, crime figures from countries which have banned the death penalty have not risen. In some cases they have actually gone down. In Canada, the murder rate in 2008 was less than half that in 1976 when the death penalty was abolished there.

5.  What about capital punishment for terrorists?

Governments often resort to the death penalty in the aftermath of violent attacks, to demonstrate they are doing something to “protect” national security. But the threat of execution is unlikely to stop men and women prepared to die for their beliefs – for example, suicide bombers. Executions are just as likely to create martyrs whose memory becomes a rallying point for their organizations.

People accused of “terrorism” are especially likely to be sentenced to death after unfair trials. Many are condemned on the basis of “confessions” extracted through torture. In some cases, special or military courts set up through counter-terrorism laws have sentenced civilians to death, undermining international standards. 

[The death penalty] is a cheap way for politically inclined people to pretend to their fearful constituencies that something is being done to combat crime. 

Jan van Rooyen, South African law professor

6. Isn’t it better to execute someone than to lock them up forever?

Every day, men, women, and even children await execution on death row. Whatever their crime, whether they are guilty or innocent, their lives are claimed by a system of justice that values retribution over rehabilitation. As long as a prisoner remains alive, he or she can hope for rehabilitation, or to be exonerated if they are later found to be innocent.

7. Is there a humane and painless way to execute a person?

Any form of execution is inhumane. The lethal injection is often touted as somehow more humane because, on the surface at least, it appears less grotesque and barbaric than other forms of execution such as beheading, electrocution, gassing, and hanging.

But the search for a “humane” way to kill people should be seen for what it really is – an attempt to make executions more palatable to the public in whose name they are being carried out and to make the governments that execute appear less like killers themselves.

8. What business is it of Amnesty if different societies want to use the death penalty?  

Human rights – including the most basic right to life – are universal and endorsed by the vast majority of countries in the world. Our call to end the death penalty is consistent with the mercy, compassion and forgiveness that all major world religions emphasize. To date, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, demonstrating that the desire to end capital punishment is shared by cultures and societies in almost every region in the world. 

Human rights apply to the best of us – and the worst of us. 

Amnesty International

9. What if public opinion is in favour of the death penalty?

Strong public support for the death penalty often goes hand in hand with a lack of reliable information about it – most often the mistaken belief that it will reduce crime. Many governments are quick to promote this erroneous belief even though there is no evidence to support it. Crucial factors that underlie how the death penalty is applied are often not understood. These include the risk of executing an innocent person, the unfairness of trials, and the discriminatory nature of the death penalty – all of which contribute to a fully informed view of capital punishment.

We believe governments need to be open about this information while promoting respect for human rights through public education programmes.  Only then can there be meaningful debate on the death penalty.

Still, the decision to execute someone cannot be decided by public opinion. Governments must lead the way.

10. Is the battle to abolish the death penalty being won?

Yes. Today, two-thirds of countries in the world have either abolished the death penalty outright or no longer use it in practice. Although there have been a few steps backward, these must be weighed up against the clear worldwide trend toward abolition. In 2015 alone, Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname all turned their backs on the death penalty once and for all. Burkina Faso, Mongolia, and South Korea are on their way to doing the same. Europe remains virtually free of the death penalty. And the USA, historically one of the nations most reluctant to give up the death penalty, is slowly turning against capital punishment.