Human Rights

Global History of Abolition

The death penalty has seen a remarkable transformation in its societal and political meaning over the past century. Once a penalty for the most trivial of offences, its status is now fiercely contested.

The history of death penalty abolition can be traced back to the writings of Enlightenment thinkers like Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. During the 19th century, a pioneering abolitionist path was taken by countries in South and Central America, which blazed a trail that much of the world only belatedly followed. In the words of Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle (2015):

‘South and Central America have been in the vanguard of the abolitionist movement.’

Venezuela, Costa Rica and Brazil abolished capital punishment in the 19th century, other nations soon followed this path in the first half of the 20th century.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, various reform movements worldwide saw capital punishment restricted to the most serious crimes, such as murder and treason. The restriction of the number of capital statutes resulted in fewer executions, and in some countries the death penalty fell into disuse. Disuse was often followed by abolition.

World War II

In the aftermath of World War II, following the horror of two world wars, as well as the emerging knowledge about atrocities perpetrated during WWII, a new human rights agenda emerged. This development saw large, supranational organisations increasingly move to condemn the use of the death penalty. These organisations fuelled abolitionism. For example, the Council of Europe and the European Union have both been vocal opponents of the death penalty.

In 1950, the Council of Europe produced a document which became the European Convention on Human Rights, from which the fundamental rights guarantees in the constitutions of Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados are in part drawn. The pronouncements of the Council of Europe on the death penalty have become more firmly abolitionist over the decades, and in 2002 the Council called for an end to capital punishment in all circumstances.

Similarly, the European Union has taken an ever stronger stance on abolition. In 1998, following an earlier move by the Council of Europe, the EU made abolition a pre-condition of membership. In 2000, the EU went further and prohibited the extradition of persons to countries where they would face the death penalty.

International organisations such as the United Nations (UN) have also supported the abolition movement. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted in 1966 and which came into force in 1976, outlined a framework of rights relevant to the death penalty and the minimum standards for its implementation.

United States

Meanwhile, the United States is now viewed as out of line with the global trend in its retention of the death penalty. This is despite waning public support for the death penalty through the 1960s, and the landmark Supreme Court case of Furman v Georgia (408 US 238) in 1972, which saw all capital statutes across the US struck down. Furman v Georgia held that the penalty was arbitrary in its implementation, and disproportionately affected African Americans and the poor. However, the death penalty soon re-emerged and newly enacted capital statutes survived constitutional challenge in 1976. In 2014, 35 persons were executed in the US (Amnesty International, 2015).

Chris Geidner has recently written that:

‘Practically speaking, the death penalty is disappearing in the United States.’

Geidner outlines the obstacles facing States which seek to performing executions across the US – including effective moratoriums imposed by State Governors, lack of access to the right drugs, and on-going court cases.


Japan represents another outlier. Japan and the US were the only countries in the G8 which carried out executions in 2014. Amnesty International (2015) reported that three persons were executed in Japan in 2014.

Abolition in Great Britain

Particularly relevant to Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, as former British colonies, is the process of abolition in Great Britain. Although reforming campaigns had seen the list of capital crimes reduced substantially throughout the 19th century, death remained the mandatory penalty for murder until the Homicide Act 1957. During the 1950s, cases like those of Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley had raised questions about miscarriages of justice.

The 1957 Homicide Act reduced the number of capital sentences by dividing murder into capital and non-capital offences. Then, in 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Capital Punishment) Act was passed. This Act suspended the death penalty for a trial period of five years. Following this five year suspension, the death penalty for murder was abolished in December 1969. The last execution in the UK had taken place in 1964.

The regions of the world where the death penalty is still retained and used are the United States, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

For more on the history of the abolition movement, see Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle (2015) The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (Oxford, Oxford University Press).


Go to The Mandatory Death Penalty


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