DEPENDING on where you are, the death penalty may look as if it is in rude health. On June 29th America’s Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s use of midazolam, a sedative, in executions—despite evidence that it can fail to cause unconsciousness, leaving those being killed in agony from the lethal drugs with which it is combined. Meanwhile some countries in the Muslim world, notably Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are executing people with increasing enthusiasm. Several others, including Nigeria and Egypt, are sentencing large numbers to death, though most of those sentences are unlikely to be carried out.
Indonesia has executed at least 14 people this year for drug crimes, most of them foreigners. Between 1994 and 2014 it executed at most 30. Using figures from official and human-rights sources, Amnesty International, a watchdog, counts 352 executions in the first four months of this year in Iran, which for its size probably executes more people than anywhere else. The true figure may be much higher. Since ending a moratorium in December, Pakistan has hanged or shot at least 150 people. Saudi Arabia has beheaded or shot 100 already this year, more than in the whole of 2014. In May it advertised for eight new executioners (no experience required).
In Nigeria, which has not carried out an execution since 2013, 54 soldiers have been on death row since December for mutinying. They say they refused to fight against the jihadists of Boko Haram because they had not been adequately armed. Amnesty International says that 589 civilians were sentenced to death last year in Nigeria; 1,500-plus are on death row. Last week another nine joined them after being convicted of blasphemy by a sharia court in the northern city of Kano.
But despite these punitive hot spots, the global total of executions continues to fall—and the trend is towards abolition, whether de jure or de facto. Since December Fiji, Madagascar and Suriname have joined the countries without the death penalty, pushing the total over 100. Another 40 or so still have it, but do not apply it. In December a record 117 countries voted for a moratorium at the UN General Assembly; 37 voted against and 34 abstained. The number voting yes was notably higher than in 2007.
The Western world’s chief executioner, America, is putting fewer people to death, too. Last year it executed 35; even if every execution scheduled for this year were to be carried out, which is unlikely, the total would be no more than 33. Of the 31 states that still have the death penalty, half have executed no one since 2010. In May Nebraska passed a law repealing it, the 19th state to do so—and the first conservative one for many years.
In 1994 80% of Americans said they endorsed the death penalty in principle. The Pew Research Centre reckons that fewer than 60% do so today—and notes that young Americans are less keen than their elders. Blacks are solidly against, as are a small majority of Hispanics. Even the Supreme Court’s recent pro-death-penalty ruling gave comfort to abolitionists by providing a chance to rehearse their case. The death penalty, argued one of the four dissenting judges, Stephen Breyer, is “highly likely” to violate the constitution. Evidence suggested that innocent people, he wrote, had been executed. People on death row had frequently been exonerated. The system was blighted by racial discrimination. Delays between sentencing and executions may violate the eighth amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment. And he noted that it is not proven, anyway, to deter crime.
Even China, the global leader, is cooling on executions. The number is a state secret but the Dui Hua Foundation, an American NGO, reckons there were about 2,400 in 2013, the last year it has been able to track. Campaigns against corruption and terrorism mean the fall may not have continued last year. But the long-term trend is steeply down. In 1983 24,000 people are thought to have been executed. In 2012, when Dui Hua put the tally at 12,000, a deputy health minister said the fall had contributed to a shortage of organs for transplant.
One reason is that the president of the Supreme People’s Court, Xiao Yang, has sought to create a more professional and accountable judiciary. Another is that some modernisers are embarrassed by China’s position at the top of this ugly league table. And though most Chinese are still thought to approve of capital punishment for murder, revulsion has grown as the media expose wrongful convictions.
Introducing the latest edition of “The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective”, Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, two experts at Oxford University, cite a Chinese professor, Zhao Bingzhi, recently conceding that “abolition is an inevitable international tide and trend, as well as a signal showing the broad-mindedness of civilised countries.” It was now, he added, “an international obligation”.