Mandatory death penalty illegal under international law, says new IBAHRI report

A new report published by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) states that the mandatory death penalty is illegal under the justice system of international law. Furthermore, under domestic law, any procedure that obliges a court to impose the death penalty is inherently flawed.

Initiated by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, Forced to Kill: The Mandatory Death Penalty and its Incompatibility with Fair Trial Standards questions the justifiability of the mandatory death penalty – capital punishment that is demanded by law, whether or not the sentencing judge thinks it fair – and examines the ways in which it is a contravention of international law.

IBAHRI Director Phillip Tahmindjis AM commented: ‘The IBAHRI has been a long-time proponent of the abolition of the mandatory death penalty, which by ignoring all circumstances of the offender and offence undermines justice systems and violates numerous basic human rights. Particularly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article6(4), which provides: “Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence … [which] may be granted in all cases”.’

He added, ‘In our new report we urge all jurisdictions with mandatory death penalty laws to suspend their operation. It is hoped that through these incremental steps we will realise our ultimate aim of universal abolition of the mandatory death penalty, and the death penalty in any circumstance.’

The report examines international attitudes to automatic death sentences and the jurisprudence behind approaches to it in international and Islamic law. It identifies a developing consensus against the mandatory death penalty in UN states, and finds that justice systems that mandate the death penalty now exist at most in only 37 countries and that fewer still actually carry out the sentences.

Countries that still impose the death penalty for certain crimes circumvent the judicial process in doing so. Some interpretations of the Qur’an argue that stoning is mandated for those guilty of apostasy or adultery and that Islamic law in fact demands these punishments. The report argues that the principles of both Islamic and international law support an end to the death penalty and automatic death sentences.

The report concludes with the following four recommendations:

  • All states with mandatory death penalty laws should suspend their operation;
  • Such states should also go further, and abolish the mandatory death penalty outright;
  • All states should acknowledge that mandatory death penalty contravenes international law; and
  • Retentionist states should avoid the use of death penalty in all circumstances, and should support a moratorium on executions when this comes up for reconsideration during the 71st session of the UN General Assembly in September 2016.

Forced to Kill: The Mandatory Death Penalty and its Incompatibility with Fair Trial Standards was launched on 11 May 2016 at the Expert Seminar on the Right to Life at the Geneva Academy, 120 B rue de Lausanne, Geneva, Switzerland. Click here to download the report.


Notes to the Editor

  1. A 2012 report by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions observes that, ‘although at least 29 States retain a mandatory death sentence for specific offences, there is growing State consensus that it is unlawful as an arbitrary deprivation of life: at least 18 States have rejected it since 2008’. A/67/275, para. 64, available via
  2. A report on  estimates that between 29 and 37 countries maintain a mandatory death penalty for some specified offences.
  3. The International Bar Association(IBA), established in 1947, is the world’s leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Through its global membership of individual lawyers, law firms, bar associations and law societies, it influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world.

    The IBA’s administrative office is in London, United Kingdom. Regional offices are located in: São Paulo, Brazil; Seoul, South Korea; and Washington, DC, United States, while the International Bar Association’s International Criminal Court and International Criminal Law Programme(ICC & ICL) is managed from an office in The Hague, the Netherlands.

    The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute(IBAHRI) works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.

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