The Death Penalty in 2015: Fewer States Carry Out An Overwhelming Majority of the World’s Executions
Death Penalty Worldwide’s tally of executions carried out around the world in 2015 delivers two key insights on global attitudes towards capital punishment. First, the death penalty is increasingly a localized phenomenon, with a small and declining number of states carrying out the vast majority of the world’s executions. Second, the application of capital punishment continues to be characterized by deliberate secrecy.
Analyzing global trends on the use of the death penalty is partly an exercise in informed guesswork. Most retentionist states either treat capital punishment as a state secret or provide only partial information on their use of the death penalty, conducting capital trials behind closed doors and carrying out covert executions. The inscrutability of death penalty practices makes it difficult to assess the real prevalence of capital punishment in national justice systems and prevents monitoring for human rights abuses. This almost universal lack of transparency sets the death penalty apart as a punishment with more political than penological underpinnings.
Still, it is clear that judicial executions are increasingly confined to a very small number of states that execute at disproportionately high rates. Only 18 of the world’s 195 states and territories were known to carry out a death sentence in 2015 – the smallest number since 2009 – and only 8 of these executed more than 10 people. (It is possible, however, that other retentionist states carried out secret executions that we don’t know about, notably in Vietnam, North Korea and Yemen.) China is believed to carry out thousands of executions – more than the rest of the world combined – but its tight control over death penalty data has forced most organizations to give up gauging execution figures. Even there, however, use of capital punishment has decreased in recent years. One of the few organizations to venture an estimate, the Dui Ha Foundation, reported that around 2,400 people were executed in 2013 and again in 2014, reflecting a significant decline in the number of executions over the past decade. Collectively, the following four top executioners – Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States – carried out 875 executions at a conservative estimate. Setting aside China, this represents 91 percent of the 954 executions confirmed for 2015. Moreover, this figure is based on the 364 executions officially announced by the Iranian authorities, but several non-governmental rights groups, all of which acknowledge that their figures are likely underestimates, report that as many as 966 or even 1,084 individuals were executed in 2015. As in past years, Iran’s execution numbers represent the world’s highest per capita execution rate.
Our available data also shows that most executions are carried out in two regions: the Middle East, where 6 states executed 540 individuals, and Asia, where in addition to China 8 countries executed 354 people. But even in Asia, executions are largely confined to only a few countries: Pakistan alone accounted for 92 percent of all executions in Asia outside of China. Only two Sub-Saharan African countries executed prisoners in 2015, Somalia and Chad, and the United States was the only state to carry out executions in the Americas last year. No executions were recorded in Europe or the Pacific region.
While the global use of capital punishment has been declining steadily for years, there are exceptions. Pakistan resumed executions after a 7-year moratorium in December 2014 following the Peshawar terrorist attack. While at first the measure was sanctioned only for prisoners convicted of terrorist acts, the government quickly broadened the authorization to execute for other offenses. With a total of 325 executed prisoners in 2015 – almost one a day – Pakistan was catapulted in the space of a year to one of the world’s most prolific executioners, second only to China and Iran. Executions have also surged in Saudi Arabia, which beheaded 158 prisoners in 2015 against 90 in 2014 (and 79 in the two previous years). Some analysts believe that the increase in executions is “a survival move by a kingdom still shaken by the Arab uprisings of 2011 and a leadership in a power struggle.”
Further underlining the political dimension of capital punishment, two more states in which the death penalty had fallen into disuse resumed executions in 2015 in a show of the state’s strength against terrorism. In February, Jordan executed two Al Qaida fighters in retaliation for the Islamic State’s capture and murder of a Jordanian pilot, ending an 8-year moratorium on executions. Chad, which after 12 years without executions was classified by the UN as an abolitionist de facto state unlikely to implement capital punishment, executed ten members of Boko Haram in August.
Death Penalty Worldwide’s global executions monitor for 2016, updated on a weekly basis, is available here.
-- Delphine Lourtau
Global Executions Monitor 2015
By number of executions:
China (1000’s), Iran 364 (official) up to 966 – 1,084, Pakistan 325, Saudi 158, United States 28, Somalia 22 (including Somaliland and Puntland), Indonesia 14, Egypt 12, Chad 10, Taiwan 6, Bangladesh 3, Iraq 3, Japan 3, Jordan 2, Afghanistan 1, India 1, Singapore 1, United Arab Emirates 1.
MENA: Saudi 158, Egypt 12, Iran 364 (official) up to 966-1084, Iraq 3, Jordan 2, United Arab Emirates 1.
Asia: Afghanistan 1, Bangladesh 3, China (1000’s), Japan 3, India 1, Indonesia 14, Pakistan 325, Singapore 1, Taiwan 6.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Chad 10, Somalia 22 (including Somaliland and Puntland).
North America: United States 28.
 Middle East Eye, Saudi mass executions about political survival, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/analysis-saudi-mass-executions-about-survival-more-anything-82067822, Jan. 2, 2016.