Policy Issues

Human Rights

The death penalty and its application are topics of significant concern among international human rights organizations and are the subject of numerous international treaties and agreements.

Webinar Series on Human Rights and the U.S. Death Penalty

In 2022, DPIC host­ed a series of webi­na­rs on top­ics relat­ed to human rights in the U.S. death penalty

DPIC Analysis—At Least 1,300 Prisoners are on U.S. Death Rows in Violation of U.S. Human Rights Obligations

Half of U.S. death row has been impris­oned 20 years or more, in vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al human rights agreements


International human rights treaties declare that “Every human being has the inherent right to life.” This right, set forth in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1966, further provides that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Article 6 further states that “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime.” The ICCPR prohibits the use of the death penalty “for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age” and bars the execution of women while they are pregnant. Article 7 of the ICCPR declares that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

When the United States ratified the ICCPR in 1992, it did so with specific reservations relating to the use of the death penalty. First, it “reserve[d] the right, subject to its Constitutional constraints, to impose capital punishment on any person (other than a pregnant woman) duly convicted under existing or future laws permitting the imposition of capital punishment, including such punishment for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” Second, it stated that “the United States considers itself bound by article 7 to the extent that `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the cruel and unusual treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.” It further declared that the treaty’s provisions “are not self-executing,” meaning that they are not enforceable under U.S. domestic law without enabling legislation by Congress.

The ICCPR establishes the end of the death penalty as a human rights goal, declaring that “Nothing in [Article 6] shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant.” This goal was codified in the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, which was promulgated on December 15, 1989. As of December 2022, ninety nations were parties to the optional protocol.

Article IV of the American Convention on Human Rights expands upon the right to life recognized in the ICCPR, providing that the death penalty “shall not be extended to crimes to which it does not presently apply” and “shall not be re-established in states that have abolished it.” It also provides that capital punishment shall not be imposed upon individuals who were age 70 or older at the time of the offense, or while a petition seeking clemency is pending decision. The United States is not a party to the American Convention.

Some of the other international human rights treaties that have an impact on the administration of capital punishment in the U.S. are: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules).

At Issue

Globally, the death penalty is typically examined through a human rights framework, but the U.S. generally views the issue through a criminal legal lens. Annual UN reports on the use of capital punishment worldwide regularly focus on the ways in which the administration of the death penalty violate fundamental human rights, including the denial of due process, racial discrimination, secrecy, and inhumane conditions of confinement and methods of execution. The European Union has repeatedly stated its opposition in all circumstances to capital punishment as an inherent violation of the human right to life, as has Pope Francis on behalf of the worldwide Catholic Church. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also stated their universal opposition to the death penalty.

This discrepancy between international and domestic discourse is reflected in the a lack of emphasis on human rights in the U.S.. In August 2022, UN Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur Faith Dikeledi Pansy Tlakula, on behalf of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “expressed concern at the lack of an institutionalised coordinating mechanism such as a national human rights institution” in the U.S.

In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty with a view to abolition. In each of the eight General Assembly biennial sessions since, the UN has approved new versions of this resolution, with its December 15, 2022 vote receiving 125 votes in favor, 37 against, and 22 abstentions. The United States, along with Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China, and Vietnam, voted no. A memorandum explaining the U.S. vote asserted that “judicial enforcement of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ensures substantive due process that applies at both the federal and state levels and prohibits methods of execution that would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

A July 2022 report of the UN Secretary-General on the Question of the Death Penalty noted that “170 States have abolished or introduced a moratorium on the death penalty either in law or in practice, or have suspended executions for more than 10 years.” Abolition of the death penalty is a prerequisite for membership in the European Union and the U.S. remains an outlier as one of the only western democracies to retain capital punishment.

The U.S. rarely ratifies international human rights instruments and when it does, it typically declares them non-self-executing and includes reservations exempting itself from certain provisions. The five ratifications of human rights treaties by the U.S. are notably fewer than the numbers ratified by its neighbors, Canada (13) and Mexico (16), and its allies in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

What DPIC Offers

In 2022, DPIC undertook a new project on Human Rights and the U.S. Death Penalty that featured a series of events and activities undertaken with the support of the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany. The events included a live presentations on human rights and the death penalty in Berlin and at the Germany Embassy in Washington, D.C., a webinar series examining various policy issues relating to the U.S. administration and use of the death penalty, the recording of a podcast viewing racial issues in the administration of the U.S. death penalty through a human rights lens, and the first of DPIC’s human rights webpages. The webinars examined Race, Human Rights, and the U.S. Death Penalty; Human Rights, Excessive Punishment, and Conditions of Death-Row Confinement in the U.S., and Secrecy, Execution Methods, & the International Response.

DPIC provides webpages on Foreign Nationals on U.S. Death Row, including violations of U.S. human rights obligations to provide capitally charged defendants notice of their right to consular assistance and on major reports on human rights issues in the death penalty worldwide. These include Amnesty International’s annual reports on global use of the death penalty, Harm Reduction International’s reports on the use of the death penalty for non-violent drug offenses in violation of international law, and the Cornell Center for the Death Penalty Worldwide’s report on the application of the death penalty against women. DPIC also offers human rights analysis of the confinement of prisoners on death rows across the U.S., documenting more than 1,500 violations of U.S. human rights obligations.

DPIC would like to especially thank our former Executive Director, Robert Dunham, for his inspiration in envisioning and developing this human rights project.

We would also like to acknowledge the generous assistance from the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany for encouraging and supporting this focus on human rights and the death penalty.

News & Developments


Aug 16, 2023

Judge Orders Hearing for Idaho Prisoner Who Faced 5 Execution Dates, Claims of Repeated Psychological Torture’

Idaho U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has ruled in favor of death row pris­on­er Gerald Pizzuto, indef­i­nite­ly paus­ing his March 2023 exe­cu­tion date, and grant­i­ng him a hear­ing in his claim that the state of Idaho vio­lates his Constitutional right against cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment by repeat­ed­ly sched­ul­ing exe­cu­tion dates while know­ing the state does not have the means to car­ry it out. As Pizzuto describes it,” Judge Winmill wrote, defen­dants’ repeat­ed resched­ul­ing of his exe­cu­tion is like dry fir­ing in a mock exe­cu­tion or a game of Russian…

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Feb 07, 2024

Worldwide Wednesday International Roundup: China, Ghana, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United States, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe

The January 25, 2024 exe­cu­tion of Kenneth Smith in the state of Alabama with nitro­gen gas received wide­spread inter­na­tion­al con­dem­na­tion. The European Union reit­er­at­ed its com­mit­ment to abol­ish­ing the death penal­ty and called the exe­cu­tion method a par­tic­u­lar­ly cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, stat­ed: I deeply regret the exe­cu­tion of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama despite seri­ous con­cerns that this nov­el and untest­ed method of suf­fo­ca­tion may amount to tor­ture, cru­el, inhu­man or degrad­ing treat­ment.” A January 30 state­ment by four United…

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Jan 24, 2024

Worldwide Wednesday International Roundup: China, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Japan, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Yemen

The University of Oxford Death Penalty Research Unit, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with sev­er­al human rights non­prof­its, recent­ly launched a data­base of for­eign nation­als sen­tenced to death or exe­cut­ed from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2021 in Asia and the Middle East. They found that Saudi Arabia leads the Middle East in sen­tenc­ing for­eign nation­als to death (385 peo­ple) and drug-traf­fick­ing (283), close­ly fol­lowed by mur­der (257), are the top crimes for which for­eign nation­als in the region are cap­i­tal­ly con­vict­ed. Among the for­eign nation­als sen­tenced to the death in the…

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Dec 08, 2023

Discussions with DPIC Podcast: Classifying Capital Punishment as Torture with John Bessler

In this month’s episode of Discussions with DPIC, Managing Director Anne Holsinger speaks with John Bessler (pic­tured), Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Professor Bessler is the author of sev­er­al books on the death penal­ty, includ­ing his 2023 book The Death Penalty’s Denial of Fundamental Human Rights: International Law, State Practice, and the Emerging Abolitionist Norm. In his most recent book, Professor Bessler argues that the death penal­ty should be clas­si­fied as tor­ture, which would pro­hib­it its use under inter­na­tion­al law and treaties. The reality…

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Dec 06, 2023

Worldwide Wednesday International Roundup: China, Israel, Iran, Malaysia, Philippines, Qatar, Somalia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe

On November 7, Chinese media report­ed that for­mer pri­ma­ry school prin­ci­pal Zhang Longji was exe­cut­ed via lethal injec­tion for rap­ing five girls, age 8 – 12, and sex­u­al­ly molest­ing 17 girls, age 8 – 14. Sun Deshun, for­mer pres­i­dent of China CITIC Bank Corporation Limited, who was con­vict­ed of accept­ing $1 bil­lion yuan ($137 mil­lion) in bribes, was giv­en a sus­pend­ed death sen­tence by the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan on November 10. If no new crimes are com­mit­ted dur­ing the two-year pro­ba­tion, then Mr. Sun’s sen­tence could be com­mut­ed to life with­out parole. According to…

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Nov 16, 2023

After Due Process Disaster,” Texas Death Row Prisoner Whose Appeal Was Lost is Resentenced and Eligible for Parole

A death-sen­tenced pris­on­er whose appeal was lost for thir­ty years was resen­tenced to life with parole on November 14, 2023, when the Harris County, Texas District Attorney’s office said it is no longer pur­su­ing the death penal­ty. Syed Rabbani, a Bangladeshi nation­al, has been on death row since 1988 for a fatal Houston shoot­ing. Mr. Rabbani filed his appeal in 1994, but it remained pend­ing in the Harris County Court sys­tem until 2022, when the Harris County District Clerk’s Office redis­cov­ered the fil­ing among 100+ oth­er for­got­ten’ cas­es. Although severely…

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Oct 12, 2023

Worldwide Wednesday International Roundup: China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Vietnam

October 10, 2023 marked the 21st World Day Against the Death Penalty. Regarding this year’s theme, The Death Penalty, an Irreversible Torture,” Raphaël Chenuil Hazan, exec­u­tive direc­tor of France-based abo­li­tion­ist group EPCM, said Today, we no longer need to demon­strate to any­one that the death penal­ty is a sophis­ti­cat­ed form of tor­ture, both in the phase of sen­tenc­ing or inves­ti­ga­tion (where phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture is often used to obtain con­fes­sions), where the ele­ments of a fair tri­al are often unfor­tu­nate­ly not met, and dur­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly unbear­able wait for…

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Sep 28, 2023

Guantanamo Bay Judge Rules 9/​11 Capital Defendant Mentally Incompetent to Stand Trial

On September 21, 2023, a mil­i­tary judge in Guantanamo Bay ruled that Ramzi Bin al Shibh, one of five defen­dants in the 9/​11 case for whom the death penal­ty is being sought, is men­tal­ly incom­pe­tent to stand tri­al. Mr. Bin al Shibh, who has been detained for 21 years, will remain in cus­tody at Guantanamo as author­i­ties attempt to treat the post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der caused when he was forced to under­go enhanced inter­ro­ga­tions” by the U.S. government.

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Sep 06, 2023

Worldwide Wednesday International Roundup: China, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, and Vietnam

On August 4, a South Korean nation­al con­vict­ed of drug-traf­fick­ing was exe­cut­ed in China, accord­ing to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who added dur­ing a press con­fer­ence that this exe­cu­tion was unre­lat­ed to the cur­rent bilat­er­al rela­tions” between the two nations. This was the first time a South Korean nation­al was exe­cut­ed in China for drug-traf­fick­ing since 2014, when four were executed. 

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Sep 01, 2023

New DPIC Podcast: Dr. Roya Boroumand discusses capital punishment in Iran

In the August 2023 episode of Discussions with DPIC, Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of DPIC, speaks with Dr. Roya Boroumand (pic­tured), Executive Director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran. A spe­cial­ist in Iran’s post-World War 2 his­to­ry, Dr. Boroumand pro­vides his­tor­i­cal con­text for ongo­ing events and dis­cuss­es the cur­rent increase in executions.

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Aug 22, 2023

Confessions of Guantanamo Detainee in Death Penalty Case Excluded as Product of Torture

On August 18, 2023, a mil­i­tary judge in Guantanamo Bay over­see­ing the pre­tri­al cap­i­tal pros­e­cu­tion of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the Saudi nation­al accused of orga­niz­ing the October 2000 bomb­ing of the U.S.S. Cole, exclud­ed Mr. al-Nishiri’s con­fes­sions as the prod­uct of tor­ture. Exclusion of such evi­dence is not with­out soci­etal costs,” said the judge, Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr., in a 50-page deci­sion. However, per­mit­ting the admis­sion of evi­dence obtained by or derived from tor­ture by the same gov­ern­ment that seeks to pros­e­cute and exe­cute the accused may have even greater…

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