The death penalty is on the rise again

Richard Branson looking out towards the city
Owen Billcliffe
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 29 May 2024

Today, Amnesty International released its annual report on the state of death penalty around the world. Compiled by a brilliant team of experts, advocates, and human rights defenders, the report makes for sobering reading.

Amnesty International's 2023 death penalty report
Amnesty International

According to Amnesty’s data, at least 1,153 executions took place worldwide in 2023, the highest annual figure recorded since 2015, marking an increase of more than 30% from 2022. And this doesn’t even include the thousands believed to have been executed in China, which doesn’t release any official figures. In total, the five countries with the highest number of executions in 2023 were China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the US.

This dramatic global rise in executions is largely due to developments in Iran, where the authorities executed at least 853 people in 2023. More than half of those were hanged for drug-related offences, which should not carry the death penalty under international law.

I am also concerned about the growing number of Iranians sentenced to die and executed for their support for the protest movement that took to the streets in the wake of the violent death of Mahsa Amini in 2022. I have recently written about the death sentence imposed on popular Iranian Hip Hop artist Toomaj Salehi – part of an appalling, brutal crackdown on artists, writers and journalists that must be stopped.

While the increased number of executions worldwide is a grave concern reflective of an equally concerning erosion of the rule of law, there is a silver lining in Amnesty’s report: judicial executions were recorded in only 16 countries – the lowest number since Amnesty started tracking them. And the broader trend gives me hope: 144 nations have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice, with more abolition legislation pending in several countries.

Amnesty International 2023 death penalty report
Amnesty International

I have never made a secret of my position on the death penalty. It’s a cruel and inhumane punishment that has always been an instrument of oppression, often used to stifle dissent, and disproportionately targeting minorities and marginalised groups. And not surprisingly, it is staggeringly prone to error and injustice. In the US alone, for every eight people that have been executed, one innocent person has been released from death row – close to 200 people since the 1970s, often after decades of languishing in prison cells. As human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has said so pointedly, “the death penalty is an imperfect sentence administered by imperfect people.” Even those who think the death penalty is morally justified must admit that the system is broken beyond repair.

For business, all of this should matter, and business leaders should pay attention to capital punishment as a fundamental failure in governance that tells us much about a country’s true commitment to democracy, fairness, and the rule of law. It’s one of the reasons I joined forces with many other business leaders and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice in 2021 to launch Business Against the Death Penalty, a global campaign for universal abolition. There is no question: the world would be a better place without the death penalty.

Head over to Amnesty International to learn more about the 2023 report.

Join and support Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty.