Global executions surge to 10-year high: US, Iran, and China lead the charge

Amnesty International reports a spike in executions driven by Iran and the U.S., with China remaining the world's leading executioner under a shroud of secrecy.

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Global executions surged to their highest number in nearly a decade in 2023, driven by sharp increases in state-sanctioned killings in Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States. Amnesty International’s annual report on the global use of the death penalty reveals a 30% increase in executions from the previous year, marking the highest figure since 2015. The report documents a total of 1,153 executions, not including the thousands believed to have been carried out in China under a veil of state secrecy.

Iran played a significant role in the global rise in executions, accounting for 74% of all recorded cases. The country executed at least 853 people in 2023, a staggering 48% increase from the 576 executions recorded in 2022. The Iranian authorities intensified their use of the death penalty to instill fear in the population and tighten their grip on power, targeting marginalized and impoverished communities disproportionately.

The Baluchi ethnic minority, making up around 5% of Iran’s population, accounted for 20% of the recorded executions. Among those executed were 24 women and at least five individuals who were minors at the time of their crimes. Notably, at least 545 of these executions were for offenses that should not warrant the death penalty under international law, including drug-related crimes, robbery, and espionage. Drug-related offenses alone constituted 56% of the recorded executions, an 89% increase from the previous year.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard, condemned Iran’s actions, stating, “The Iranian authorities showed complete disregard for human life and ramped up executions for drug-related offenses, further highlighting the discriminatory impact of the death penalty on Iran’s most marginalized and impoverished communities.”

The United States also saw a troubling rise in executions, increasing from 18 in 2022 to 24 in 2023. This placed the U.S. among the top five executing countries worldwide. Legislative measures introduced in states like Idaho and Tennessee aimed to expand execution methods, including the use of firing squads. In South Carolina, a new law was signed to conceal the identities of individuals involved in executions. Alabama carried out an execution using nitrogen asphyxiation, a method criticized for being cruel and untested.

Callamard criticized the U.S. states’ commitment to the death penalty, saying, “A select number of US states demonstrated a chilling commitment to the death penalty and a callous intent to invest resources in the taking of human life. Executions via the cruel new method of nitrogen asphyxiation have also come into use with Alabama shamefully using this untested method to kill Kenneth Smith earlier this year, just 14 months after subjecting him to a botched execution attempt.”

China remains the world’s leading executioner, though the exact number of executions is unknown due to state secrecy. Amnesty International believes thousands of people were executed in China in 2023, with limited official reports sending clear messages that crimes such as drug trafficking and bribery would be harshly punished by death. Public executions and threats serve as tools for the state to maintain control and repress dissent.

The Middle East and North Africa region saw a 30% increase in executions, with Iran and Saudi Arabia leading the charge. Saudi Arabia accounted for 15% of all recorded executions, with 172 people executed in 2023. In Sub-Saharan Africa, recorded executions more than tripled, rising from 11 in 2022 to 38 in 2023. The total number of death sentences handed down globally increased by 20%, with 2,428 new death sentences imposed across 52 countries.

Amnesty International condemned the use of the death penalty and highlighted the increasing isolation of countries that continue to carry out executions. Callamard emphasized the discriminatory and arbitrary nature of the death penalty, stating, “The inherent discrimination and arbitrariness that marks the use of the death penalty have only compounded the human rights violations of our criminal justice systems. The small minority of countries that insist on using it must move with the times and abolish the punishment once and for all.”

Despite the rise in executions, the number of countries carrying out the death penalty reached the lowest figure on record. As of 2023, 112 countries are fully abolitionist, and 144 have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Legislative steps toward abolition were taken in countries like Kenya, Liberia, and Zimbabwe. Pakistan repealed the death penalty for drug-related offenses, and Malaysia abolished the mandatory death penalty.

While setbacks were observed in some regions, progress continued globally. No executions were recorded in countries such as Belarus, Japan, Myanmar, and South Sudan, which had carried out executions in 2022. In Asia, Pakistan’s repeal of the death penalty for drug-related offenses and Malaysia’s abolition of the mandatory death penalty marked significant steps forward. Sri Lanka’s authorities confirmed that the President did not intend to sign execution warrants, easing concerns of executions resuming.

Callamard urged all governments to rally behind the UN’s call to end the death penalty, stating, “The death penalty will again come under scrutiny at this year’s UN General Assembly. Amnesty International urges all governments to rally behind the UN’s call to end the use of the death penalty in a vital show of commitment to human rights.”

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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