With the support of a record 125 nations, the United Nations General Assembly has overwhelmingly adopted a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view towards its ultimate abolition. The United States voted no, placing it in the company of Iran, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, China, North Korea, and Vietnam.

The final vote, taken on the 15th anniversary of the General Assembly’s first adoption of a moratorium resolution on December 15, 2007, was 125 nations in favor, 37 opposed, and 22 abstentions. Support for a global execution moratorium topped the previous record of 120 attained in 2018 and matched in 2020. In November 2020, 120 nations supported the resolution, 39 opposed, and 24 abstained.

In a joint statement, Penny Wong and Arnoldo André Tinoco, the foreign ministers of Australia and Costa Rica who led the moratorium discussion, characterized the supermajority vote “of almost two thirds” of the world’s nations as “historic.”

“The record level of support for the resolution shows that the majority of Member States agree this brutal and inhumane punishment must end,” they wrote. “Already, four out of every five countries have abolished the death penalty or no longer apply it.”

The U.S. vote disappointed death penalty opponents who considered the resolution a major opportunity for the Biden administration to take action to advance the President’s campaign pledge to work to end the death penalty.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who signed into law the bill abolishing the death penalty in Maryland in 2013 and now serves as a commissioner on the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, urged Biden to support the moratorium resolution. “All of America’s European allies, every country in the Western Hemisphere and a fast-increasing number of African nations will be among th[e] super-majority” supporting the resolution, he wrote in a December 12 commentary in America Magazine. “Why then would President Biden—who has done so much to repair America’s alliances abroad—have us side with Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea in voting for continued use of the death penalty in the world? … It is time for America to stop giving political cover on the world stage to Iranian and Saudi executions.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 230 national organizations, wrote to President Biden in advance of the vote advocating support for the moratorium or, in the alternative, that the U.S. abstain. Its letter, co-signed by 48 other organizations, said that “[a]ny criminal-legal system truly dedicated to the pursuit of justice should recognize the humanity of all who encounter it and not sanction the use of a discriminatory practice that denies individuals their rights, fails to respect their dignity, and stands in stark contrast to the fundamental values of our democratic system of governance.” The continued use of the death penalty in the United States, the Leadership Conference wrote, “flouts human rights laws and norms.”

Moratorium resolutions have been introduced in each two-year session of the U.N. General Assembly since 2007. In its first year, it passed 104-54 and has gained additional support each time since. The U.S. has consistently opposed the resolution.

Prior to the final vote this session, the U.S. Mission to the UN wrote a letter to the committee chair setting forth the basis for its opposition to the resolution. The U.S. diplomats wrote: “the ultimate decision regarding these issues must be addressed through the democratic processes of individual Member States and be consistent with their obligations under international law. International human rights law establishes clearly that Member States may, within certain established parameters, use [the death penalty] …. Accordingly, the U.S. does not understand the lawful use of this form of punishment as contravening respect for human rights, both as it relates to the convicted and sentenced individual as well as the rights of others. Those states wishing to abolish the death penalty within their jurisdiction may choose to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.” The letter urged U.N. Member States to instead “focus their attention toward addressing and preventing human rights violations that may result from the improper imposition and application of capital punishment.”

In a column in Verdict Justicia, Amherst College professor Austin Sarat criticized the U.S. response as “legalistic” and said it “obscures the issue in principle. The United States should acknowledge that the death penalty cannot be squared with a commitment to human rights. It should support the moratorium resolution wholeheartedly,” he wrote.

“It is time for [President Biden] to put this country on record as committed to ending the death penalty,” Sarat wrote. “Doing so would send a strong signal of where he wants to lead the country on this issue and also would lend support to groups working to end the death penalty both in this country and in nations like Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, and Iran which still use it. … If we do not do so, we are giving aid and comfort to the very regime whose acts we denounce when that regime carries out its most brutal deeds.”


Jon Jackson, U.N. Vote to Ban Death Penalty Is Joe Biden’s Latest Headache, Experts Say, Newsweek, December 15, 2022; Josh Marcus, Inhumane’: Critics slam US vote against UN res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing death penal­ty, The Independent, December 15, 2022; Austin Sarat, It is Time for the Biden Administration to Join the Rest of the World in Moving Against the Death Penalty, Verdict Justia, December 15, 2022; Martin O’Malley, The Biden admin­is­tra­tion must vote to abol­ish the death penal­ty at the U.N. this week, America Magazine, December 12, 2022; Carol Zimmermann, Advocates dis­pleased with U.S. vote against glob­al death penal­ty ban, Catholic News Service, December 202022

Read the text of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 77/​222, Moratorium on the use of the death penal­ty, adopt­ed December 152022.

Read the United States Mission to the United Nations’ Explanation of Vote on a Third Committee Resolution on the Death Penalty, Nov. 11, 2022; the let­ter from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to President Joe Biden on behalf of 48 orga­ni­za­tions re: UN Resolution on a Death Penalty Moratorium, December 13, 2022; and the Joint Statement of Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and Costa Rican Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship Arnoldo André Tinoco, Record sup­port for glob­al mora­to­ri­um on the death penal­ty at the UN, December 162022.