International efforts to abolish the death penalty

The right to life and the respect for human dignity and inviolability are underlying principles on which all other human rights and the principles of the rule of law are based. The use of the death penalty is not consistent with these principles and is in itself inhumane.

Efforts to abolish the death penalty are an integral part of the Government’s human rights policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses a range of tools in addressing this issue in international and regional organisations, as well as when engaging directly with individual countries.

Norway urges the authorities in countries where the death penalty is still practised to introduce an immediate moratorium, and to abolish the death penalty both in legislation and in practice. Norway also insists that international minimum standards are complied with and encourages greater openness and access to information in those countries where the death penalty is still practiced, in order to strengthen due process of law.

Even if international law in practice does not prohibit the use of the death penalty, it places strong restrictions on state parties. When the death penalty is carried out in a particularly inhumane way or used against minors, pregnant women or persons who cannot be deemed criminally responsible, this is a clear violation of international law. So too is the use of the death penalty in cases where proper legal protection has not been ensured during the legal process, and in cases where it is used for actions that cannot be considered as the most serious crimes. When Norway learns of such cases, we make our views known to the responsible authorities, either alone or together with the EU and other like-minded countries. The countries that practised use of the death penalty most frequently today are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

There are various places around the world where prisoners are subject to inhumane treatment by having to wait in uncertainty on death row for many years. There is still wrongful execution of people who are later found to be innocent. In some cases the death penalty violates the human rights and legal protection of individuals, and moreover, experience shows that it has no proven deterrent effect on crime in society.

By ratifying the following international legal instruments states parties are obligated to abolish the use of the death penalty in all circumstances: The Second Optional Protocol to the UNs International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OP2) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Council of Europe has made abolition of the death penalty a prerequisite for membership.

The global trend is towards abolition of the death penalty. At the time the UN was established in 1945, only eight states had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By 1977, this figure had risen to 16, and today approximately 170 of the 193 UN member states have abolished the death penalty either by law or in practice, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This is also reflected in the UN. Norway, together with a broad alliance of countries, has ensured extensive and increasing support for the UN resolution urging all states to introduce a moratorium on the use of the death penalty as a step towards full abolition. In addition to its efforts in the UN and in specific countries, Norway cooperates with and supports NGOs and human rights defenders who are involved in long-term efforts to abolish the death penalty in multiple regions.

As part of the Government’s international efforts, Norway participates in the World Congress against the Death Penalty, which takes place every three years. Such global events bring together governments, UN representatives, civil society organisations, various experts and activists, enabling them to share their experience, knowledge, networks and ability to exert an influence. This helps to mobilise support for the abolitionist movement, including in countries that have not yet abolished the death penalty.

Norway’s priorities

  • encourage all countries to abolish the death penalty by law or introduce a moratorium on executions and become party to OP2, which aims to achieve the abolition of the death penalty;
  • encourage countries that have not removed the death penalty from their legislation to introduce a moratorium on its use as a first step towards abolition, and vote in favour of the UN’s resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty;
  • urge states that have retained provisions for the death penalty in their legislation, but that do not carry out executions, to remove these provisions from their legislation and not to reintroduce the death penalty;
  • support and follow up the anti-death penalty efforts of civil society organisations at country level in various regions;
  • put forth ethical, legal and empirical arguments for the abolition of the death penalty.

Guidelines for efforts to abolish the death penalty