Why do certain countries still have capital punishment?


Executing a person who has been given the death penalty by a court after being found guilty of a crime is known as capital punishment or the death penalty. There is a difference between capital punishment and extrajudicial executions as extrajudicial execution is carried out without any due process of law[1]. Various countries have different criteria for punishing criminals under capital punishment from grievous crimes like murder, rape etc. to common crimes like drug trafficking etc. This shows the criteria to sentence capital punishment depends on the criminal laws of that country.

International classification of nations that use the death penalty

The use of Amnesty International’s classification system is the most used technique for grouping countries according to their use of the death sentence[2].

  1. The first groups of nations are those whose legal systems forbid the death sentence for any offence; this category is called “Abolitionist for all crimes”. There are 108 countries in this category like Albania, Bhutan, Australia, Armenia, Nepal, Poland, Portugal etc[3].
  2. The second group consists of nations that reserve the use of the death sentence for serious offences that fall under military law or other exceptional situations; this category is called “Abolitionist for ordinary crimes only”. Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Israel, Kazakhstan, and Peru are the only 8 nations in this group[4].
  3. The third group includes nations that still enforce the death penalty for non-violent offences like murder but can be termed abolitionist in theory since they have not carried out an execution in the past ten years and are thought to have a policy or well-established practice of not doing so.; this category is called “Abolitionist in practice”. 28 nations in total fall into this group, including Algeria, Brunei Darussalam, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, South Korea (Republic of Korea), Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, etc[5].
  4. The final group consists of nations that continue to use the death sentence for non-violent offences; this category is called “Retentionist”. There are 55 countries under this category like Afghanistan, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, USA, Yemen etc[6].

Out of the 199 nations, 144 are thought to have both legally and practically abolished the death sentence. Less than half of the world’s nations still preserve the death sentence as of 2020, and just 30% practice it, according to Amnesty International research[7].

What is the reason for some countries to still retain capital punishment?

Over time the popularity of capital punishment has steadily declined especially during the last three decades. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 was a significant step toward the abolition of the death sentence in many countries following the end of World War II. Additionally, the fall in the use of the death penalty might be attributed to the 1976 adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. All around the world, fewer people are receiving the death penalty as a sentence. But there are still some countries that are strongholds of capital punishment, usually, these countries are either autocratic, or those countries that have a colonial heritage, or it’s because of religion. Autocratic countries like China and North Korea use capital punishment as a tool to punish any dissent toward their rule and to act as a deterrent. Whereas there are also countries that use it because in their religion it is mentioned that for some offences there can only be a death penalty sentenced to the offender. Colonial legacy is also a responsible factor in defining the laws of some countries. Laws made by colonial rulers to punish the citizens of their colonies still affect the legal procedures of these countries especially British colonies are more likely to implement the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, the majority of public executions were reported to have occurred in China, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in its 2021 report. China is the country with the most executions, but the precise number is unknown because it is a state secret; at least 579 individuals are thought to have been put to death there.[8]

In many countries because of the high crime intensity, they use capital punishment as a deterrent against heinous and socially unexpectable crimes. For instance, in India, the death penalty is only imposed in the most extreme circumstances, such as brutal rape or murder. In countries like Singapore, China, Iran etc. capital punishment is sentenced to even for crimes like drug trafficking. Also, countries that are not secular use the death penalty as a punishment for any crime related to their religion for example in Pakistan death penalty is used to punish any blasphemy related to Islam. The death penalty is used to punish political opponents in nations like Iran, Sudan, and others. Because of political unrest and a fervent belief in retributive justice, the death penalty is frequently applied in Africa. Additionally, because legal aid is scarce in these nations and the populace is generally unaware of its rights and the country’s criminal justice system, the continent’s use of the death penalty is further exacerbated. Most nations only impose the death penalty for serious crimes like murder, rape, and terrorism, but others also do so for less serious offences like adultery, apostasy, blasphemy, corruption, drug trafficking, espionage, fraud, treason etc. The main motive of capital punishment in these countries is to deter people to do that particular crime in that country.


Most countries that retain capital punishment usually sentence it to deter that type of crime or many times it is used as a political tool against political opponents of those that are in power in that country. The death penalty is still used as punishment in the majority of less autocratic or developed nations. These nations are also less susceptible to pressure from powerful nations to eliminate the death penalty entirely or just for regular offences. It is also evident that the geographical and cultural context in which that country is located plays a major role in explaining why these countries still retain the death penalty. This explains why many nations will still utilise the death penalty to punish offenders; doing away with the death penalty in these nations is not feasible because the majority of them are not going to change their laws in response to pressure from any international group. Laws like the death penalty cannot be changed in any of these nations without strong political resolve and an equally strong judiciary.

Author(s) Name: Himanshu Mishra (St. Mother Teresa Law College, Lucknow (affiliated with Lucknow University)


[1]Roger Hood, ‘Capital Punishment Law’ (Britannica) <https://www.britannica.com/topic/capital-punishment > accessed 21 January 2023

[2]‘Death sentence and executions 2020’ (Amnesty) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/ACT5037602021ENGLISH.pdf > accessed 21 January 2023





[7]‘Death Penalty 2021: Facts And Figures’ (Amnesty)                                                          <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/05/death-penalty-2021-facts-and-figures/> accessed 21 January 2023

[8] ‘Death Penalty’ (Amnesty) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/death-penalty/#:~:text=Every%20day%2C%20people%20are%20executed,terrorism%2Drelated%20acts%20and%20murder > accessed 23 January 2023


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