Amnesty International Exposes the Cruelty of the Death Penalty

Pursuing its campaign against capital punishment, Amnesty International published When the State Kills, in which the organization advocated total abolition of the death penalty and reported on the use of capital punishment by one hundred governments around the world.

Summary of Event

When the State Kills . . .: The Death Penalty—A Human Rights Issue (1989) revealed an ancient forerunner of Amnesty International’s worldwide campaign against the death penalty in citing the earliest recorded parliamentary opposition to capital punishment, Diodotus’s claim in 427 b.c.e. Greece that execution is not an effective deterrent to crime. Sixteenth century critics of capital punishment objected to the widespread penalties of burning, beheading, hanging, and drawing and quartering that were imposed for more than two hundred offenses. Preindustrial societies in the Middle Ages substituted banishment or mutilation for execution, and the first prisons opened in the sixteenth century. Reformers such as Jeremy Bentham successfully worked to reduce the number of capital offenses in England to four by 1861. Amnesty International
Capital punishment
When the State Kills (Amnesty International)
[kw]Amnesty International Exposes the Cruelty of the Death Penalty (1989)
[kw]Cruelty of the Death Penalty, Amnesty International Exposes the (1989)
[kw]Death Penalty, Amnesty International Exposes the Cruelty of the (1989)
Amnesty International
Capital punishment
When the State Kills (Amnesty International)
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Broda, Christian
Hammarberg, Thomas

In 1863, Venezuela became the first country to abolish the death penalty. The Netherlands ended capital punishment for most crimes in 1870, Sweden for all crimes in 1921, and the United Kingdom in 1965. Executions in the United States declined from 1,666 in the 1930’s to 191 in the 1960’s, before the U.S. Supreme Court halted all use of capital punishment from 1972 to 1976.

The United States has been the only country using capital punishment that has attempted to make the process more humane, introducing electrocution, poison gas, and lethal injection as methods of execution. As the Amnesty International (AI) report points out, however, such methods have not guaranteed a lack of suffering. Malfunctioning electric chairs, for instance, have caused head coverings to catch fire.

After 1948, developing international human rights law progressively imposed greater restrictions on judicially imposed executions. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) affirmed the right to life, and the 1949 Geneva Conventions circumscribed military punishments in wartime. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) draft Article 6 limited the death penalty to only the most serious crimes. Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights (1969) American Convention on Human Rights (1969) forbade the extension of capital punishment to crimes for which it was not imposed at the time as well as reestablishment of the death penalty in states that abolish it. Both conventions also prohibited execution of pregnant women and those below the age of eighteen at the time of their offenses.

Pressed by Sweden and Austria, the United Nations United Nations;capital punishment began collecting data and publishing reports on the use of capital punishment around the world. The General Assembly resolved that the number of capital offenses should be progressively restricted and affirmed the desirability of abolishing capital punishment in all countries. Under international law, however, such decisions are made within countries; they cannot be dictated by international treaties or multilateral resolutions. Nearly forty states continued to execute for crimes other than murder—Iran and Saudi Arabia for adultery, China for embezzlement and pornography, seven governments for rape, fourteen for robbery or armed robbery, and seven for drug trafficking.

Internationally mandated rules of fair criminal procedure did not eliminate arbitrary executions or completely protect the innocent. Governments prosecuted unrepresented defendants in secret proceedings of specially created courts with partisan judges from whose decisions there was no appeal. “In Turkey, for example,” the AI report states, “death sentences have been imposed after mass trials (with sometimes more than 1,000 defendants). . . . In one such trial in 1986 the judge ruled that confessions extracted under torture could be used in evidence.” Summary execution immediately after trial renders meaningless any right to petition for clemency when unstable new governments hasten to eliminate potential rivals for power. Despite the extensive procedural guarantees and opportunities for appeal in U.S. courts, the AI researchers discovered 350 miscarriages of justice in capital cases in the United States since 1900, resulting in at least twenty-three erroneous executions.

Founded in 1961, Amnesty International initially worked primarily on behalf of prisoners of conscience—individuals imprisoned for nonviolent political activity—and, as a second mandate, on behalf of all torture victims. In 1977, the year in which the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel Peace Prize;Amnesty International AI convened an international conference in Stockholm that led to the publication of The Death Penalty (1979), Death Penalty, The (Amnesty International) a handbook for the first global campaign against capital punishment. Thereafter, AI actively opposed all executions, even of individuals convicted for violent offenses.

To publicize executions as human rights violations, AI began collecting data and annually reporting the numbers of death sentences imposed and the numbers of individuals executed. The AI research provided a more complete record than did the U.N. secretary-general’s periodic reports, which were based on surveys returned by less than one-third of the more than one hundred governments still imposing the death penalty. Nevertheless, AI could record only a fraction of the executions actually conducted, because many went unreported or unacknowledged. During the 1980’s, as many as sixty-seven countries imposed death sentences in a single year, and between thirty and forty-four governments were known to have conducted executions each year. The number of known executions in any given year ranged from a low of 769 to a high of 3,278, but there were certainly many more unacknowledged and unreported death sentences carried out by China, Iran, and other countries.

Abolitionists took heart, however, when on the average one government each year discontinued executions after 1976. European states led the way, first in national law and then in 1983 by adding the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (1983)
European Convention on Human Rights (1950) The Council of Europe awarded its Human Rights Prize to Dr. Christian Broda, former minister of justice of Austria and architect of the Sixth Protocol. A similar protocol abolishing capital punishment was proposed for the American Human Rights Convention.

Thirty-seven states in the United States, however, reinstituted the death penalty during the same period. More than two thousand prisoners were soon sentenced to death, and frequent executions in four southern states raised the U.S. rate to eighteen per year. In an attempt to counter the growing popularity of capital punishment in the United States, AI published United States of America: The Death Penalty (1987), United States of America (Amnesty International) which presented conclusive evidence that factors such as race, poverty, and mental retardation significantly affect the selection of those condemned to die. AI noted that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected statistical proof of racial disparities in affirming a highly questionable death penalty in a Georgia case. In other cases, AI pointed out, new evidence had led to the release of wrongly condemned individuals, including Randall Dale Adams, the subject of The Thin Blue Line, Thin Blue Line, The (documentary film) a documentary film that examined the American criminal justice system’s failures.

AI also singled out for special campaigns the governments with the highest execution rates: China, Nigeria, and Iran. Despite worldwide appeals for clemency, Pakistan’s military government executed former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali in 1979. Following her 1988 election as prime minister of Pakistan, Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, Bhutto, Benazir arranged commutation of all remaining death sentences to life imprisonment.

AI also worked for new international human rights standards that would curtail use of the death penalty. At the United Nations, AI supported procedural safeguards promulgated by the Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC) in 1984. The guidelines directed governments to provide fair trials, the right of appeal to a higher court, and opportunities to request clemency. The nonbinding ECOSOC safeguards also prohibited retroactive application of the death penalty and precluded execution of the insane. Throughout the 1980’s, AI lobbied along with other nongovernmental organizations for an optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that would oblige ratifying governments to abolish capital punishment.

Ten years after its first campaign against the death penalty, AI launched another global abolition effort in 1989. When the State Kills . . .: The Death Penalty—A Human Rights Issue presented the most compelling arguments and evidence against executions and provided a survey of the laws and practices in 180 countries. The nine-month AI campaign that accompanied the book’s publication highlighted 41 target countries with public opinion research, a week of actions against executions, specially produced videos, marches, vigils, letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and resolutions by AI members and groups. More than one hundred leaders from 26 countries made public statements appealing for an end to executions. A former Nigerian chief judge, the mother of an American murder victim, and a number of academic and medical experts conducted AI-sponsored lecture tours.


Because AI has had so many allies in the campaign for abolition of the death penalty—including Pope John Paul II, John Paul II who spoke openly about the need to reduce and even eliminate the practice—there is no way to gauge AI’s separate impact on revised norms, the fluctuating rate of executions, and shifting public opinion. New governments in Romania and Hungary that abolished the death penalty may have been reacting against communism rather than responding to AI’s appeals.

While not claiming credit, AI has enthusiastically noted continued progress on the legal front. In 1990, seven more countries became totally abolitionist. One more abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes, two instituted moratoriums on executions, and two abolitionist governments defeated attempts to reintroduce capital punishment. By 1991, nearly half the countries of the world had abolished capital punishment either in law (forty-four totally, seventeen for ordinary crimes) or in practice (twenty-five with no executions for more than a decade). Ninety countries retained and used the death penalty. From 1976 to 1990, thirty-one countries abolished the death penalty, an average of more than one per year. After years of sustaining one of the highest rates of executions, South Africa instituted a moratorium, and the Soviet Union reexamined its practice.

Some major countries, such as the United States and China, however, moved against the trend. The U.S. Supreme Court limited death row inmates’ right to habeas corpus appeals in federal court, reversed a recent precedent to allow victim impact statements, and authorized execution of the mentally retarded and those who committed offenses at ages as young as sixteen. The U.S. Congress extended capital punishment to noncapital offenses and also curtailed inmates’ right to federal habeas corpus relief. After subjecting Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis Dukakis, Michael to embarrassment for his “coddling” of dangerous criminals, President George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;capital punishment sought the death penalty for thirty-seven more federal offenses. Public opinion polls revealed broad support for capital punishment among Americans; gubernatorial candidates and state and federal legislators sought votes by proclaiming their commitment to swift and certain execution for heinous offenders.

AI could nevertheless find consolation in the successful quest for an international convention abolishing the death penalty. In 1990, the U.N. General Assembly opened for signature an optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that would abolish the death penalty in ratifying states. In addition, ECOSOC expressed concern about government practices incompatible with the 1984 procedural safeguards. While calling for improved implementation, ECOSOC also recommended further guidelines—the adequate assistance of counsel at all stages, mandatory appeals, a maximum age beyond which a defendant could not be executed, and elimination of the death penalty for the mentally retarded.

The U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities also appealed to member states to stop using the death penalty against people under the age of eighteen. The General Assembly of the Organization of American States adopted for ratification a protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to abolish the death penalty. The 1990 Eighth U.N. Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, however, failed to adopt a resolution inviting countries still imposing the death penalty to consider establishing a three-year moratorium on executions.

AI reported that despite the improved legal situation, in practice there were 2,229 known executions in thirty-four countries and at least 2,826 death sentences imposed in sixty-two countries during the 1989 campaign year. In the following year, AI learned that at least twenty-six countries had executed 2,029 prisoners, and fifty-four governments had sentenced 2,009 to death. In 2005, AI reported that 2,148 persons were executed in twenty-two countries, indicating a stubborn persistence on the part of some nations. Nevertheless, by 2006, eighty-seven countries had completely abolished the death penalty, and another thirty-eight had severely restricted or eliminated it in practice if not in law. Substantial progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go before AI’s goal of universal abolition is reached. Amnesty International
Capital punishment
When the State Kills (Amnesty International)

Further Reading

  • Amnesty International. The Death Penalty. London: Author, 1979. Published after Amnesty’s 1977 Stockholm conference calling for abolition. Summarizes prevailing international law on the death penalty and provides country surveys of law and practice.
  • _______. United States of America: The Death Penalty. London: Author, 1987. Provides a thorough historical review and indictment of capital punishment in the United States. Details racial disparities, procedural inequities, and the execution of the innocent, juveniles, and the mentally retarded. Highly readable account of prevailing national law, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and international standards prior to 1987.
  • _______. When the State Kills . . .: The Death Penalty—A Human Rights Issue. New York: Author, 1989. Survey of laws and practices concerning capital punishment throughout the world is an excellent source for comparisons among national policies. Reiterates all major arguments against the use of capital punishment.
  • Banner, Stuart. The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Presents a balanced, well-researched account of the history of capital punishment in the United States. Includes bibliographic endnotes and index.
  • Gray, Ian, and Moira Stanley for Amnesty International U.S.A. A Punishment in Search of a Crime: Americans Speak Out Against the Death Penalty. New York: Avon Books, 1989. Compelling collection of forty-two statements against capital punishment includes effective testimony by prison wardens, prosecutors, and victims’ family members whose surprising views were personally affected by their direct participation in the criminal justice system. Also presents the passionate objections voiced by successful defense counsel, abolitionists, religious leaders, and the wrongly condemned.
  • Gross, Samuel R., and Robert Mauro. Death and Discrimination: Racial Disparities in Capital Sentencing. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989. Methodologically sophisticated analysis reveals the undeniable institutional racism affecting death penalty decisions in the United States. Notes that although the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged the statistical patterns revealed by social scientists, the Court has nevertheless insisted that defendants prove intentional discriminatory conduct in their own trials.
  • Hood, Roger. The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examination of the use of capital punishment around the world frankly acknowledges the inadequacy of government replies to U.N. Secretariat questionnaires and relies instead on comparatively less fragmentary research conducted by nongovernmental organizations and scholars. Reports on governments that have disregarded international safeguards in conducting arbitrary executions.

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