Is the death penalty a fair punishment?

Human rights

Oliver Hendrich

Oliver Hendrich is a member of the Amnesty thematic group on the death penalty.

An interview with Oliver Hendrich, an expert on the subject of the death penalty at Amnesty International Germany

140 countries around the world no longer use the death penalty in practice. Yet over two thirds of the world's population still live in countries where people are being executed. International law does not currently prohibit the state killing of people either. Oliver Hendrich, Amnesty International expert, on the inhumanity of the death penalty, its lack of deterrent effect and ongoing symbolic power.

Stretcher straps in the execution room of McAlester State Prison, Oklahoma. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

General information on the death penalty

What are the reasons against the death penalty?

Oliver Hendrich: The death penalty is a fundamental violation of human rights. It violates the right to life and is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Furthermore, the death penalty has no greater deterrent effect than, for example, long prison sentences.

What does international law say about the use of the death penalty?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1948 in response to the staggering levels of state brutality and state terror in World War II, recognizes the right of everyone to life and prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The death penalty violates these rights.

This is also supported by international and regional agreements aimed at abolishing the death penalty. The death penalty as such is currently not in violation of international law. Although it is fundamentally prohibited within the scope of the European Convention on Human Rights, no global customary international law has yet emerged that would outlaw this punishment. After all, neither the International Criminal Court nor the United Nations tribunals know the death penalty for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, despite the fact that they are responsible for extremely serious crimes, such as crimes against humanity, including genocide.

In addition, there are a number of provisions in international treaties and international standards that are important for states in which the death penalty is still used. They impose severe restrictions on the death penalty. These include, for example, the ban on executing minors, pregnant women or mothers of young children; the condition that persons charged with a fatal offense have the guarantee and the right to a fair trial under international human rights law; and the right to seek pardon or commutation of the verdict.

What is an appropriate alternative to the death penalty?

States are sovereign in their decision as to which alternative sentence to replace the death penalty. The demand for justice as well as the need for punishment and security can be met through alternative sanctions. Across the world, recidivism rates among murderers after serving long prison sentences are extremely low.

Isn't life imprisonment more cruel than death?

Indeed, an outsider cannot understand what it means to remain imprisoned until natural death. The Council of Europe therefore emphasizes that life imprisonment with no hope of release is inhuman, that there must always be means of releasing someone under certain conditions, otherwise the punishment would not serve its purpose. The key difference between the death penalty and long imprisonment is that the death penalty makes life irretrievable. A prison sentence gives the convicted person the opportunity to show remorse and change. An execution, on the other hand, destroys any possibility of rehabilitation or compensation in the event of a misjudgment.

A popular argument from proponents: If the death penalty is abolished, the crime rate will rise - the death penalty as a deterrent measure. Are there reliable statistics for this?

No, the death penalty is no more deterrent than other penalties. Despite an intensive search by its proponents, there is no reliable evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Rather, practice in many countries shows that the abolition of the death penalty has no negative consequences.

What are the arguments of the states that continue to use the death penalty?

Every society seeks protection from crime. Adherence to the death penalty may enable governments to create the impression that they are taking strong action against the crime. In fact, this only distracts from thinking about strategies needed to tackle the root causes of crime. These are to be found in complex emotional and social conditions (e.g. social grievances) on which the death penalty has no influence.

How can one actively take action against the death penalty?

At Amnesty International, we support people at risk of the death penalty with urgent actions and petitions. In addition, our members are committed to the abolition of the death penalty all over the world as an important contribution to the implementation of human rights in general. Amnesty uses public relations to put pressure on government agencies on the death penalty. The organization promotes social and political dialogue on the death penalty at all levels. Contacts with judges, public prosecutors, ministries of justice and political decision-makers are just as important as arguments with the public and various civil society organizations.