World Day against the Death Penalty

10 October is World Day against the Death Penalty. Since 1982, the abolition of the death penalty has been one of Switzerland’s highest priorities in its human rights and foreign policy. In 2014, Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter will make the issue a central theme of his presidency. The FDFA Strategy on the Universal Abolition of the Death Penalty 2013–2016 translates the goal of abolishing the death penalty worldwide by 2025 into policy and sets a specific time-frame for the activities planned to reach this aim. 

Human rights are an important pillar of Swiss foreign policy and drive Switzerland’s efforts towards the universal abolition of the death penalty. On the one hand, the emphasis Switzerland places on human rights bears testimony to its long humanitarian tradition, on the other, safeguarding human rights serves freedom and international stability, and is thus also in Switzerland’s interests.

Switzerland’s declared aim is a world without the death penalty. It is seeking to get retentionist countries to establish moratoriums or at least to restrict the number of offences for which the death penalty may be imposed. Furthermore, Switzerland is committed to ensuring the respect of minimum standards in international law: no imposition of the death penalty on minors and no enforcement of capital punishment on pregnant women or disabled individuals.

Milestones in the fight against the death penalty

Through declarations and legal agreements, the international community is drawing gradually closer to universal prohibition of the death penalty. It is an ongoing process. European states especially have become more committed to the abolitionist cause, in particular since the 1980s. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950 protected the right to life of every human being but permitted the death penalty for offences which by law were punishable by death. The convention was signed on 4 November 1950 by 13 countries and came into force in 1953. Switzerland joined the Council of Europe in 1963 and ratified the convention 11 years later. Since then a multitude of further provisions have come into effect.

The following were international milestones on the road to abolition of the death penalty:

  • UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):
    The declaration set out the rights and freedoms of human beings. Article 3 emphasised the right to life. Since it was a declaration and not a legally binding document, calls for strengthened measures grew louder.  
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966):
    The UN member states were called upon to abolish the death penalty or only to enforce it for the gravest of offences. Switzerland ratified the covenant in 1975.  
  • Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights (1982):
    The protocol provided for the abolition of the death penalty in times of peace. It was ratified by almost all of the parties to the ECHR. The death penalty was still permitted, however, in respect of acts committed in time of war or of imminent threat of war. 
  • Protocol No. 13 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (2002):
    By ratifying the protocol adopted on 3 July 2003 in Lithuania, the member states agreed not to condemn anybody to death or execute them even in time of war or of imminent threat of war. The first states signatories alongside Switzerland were Andorra, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Romania and Ukraine. As of July 2013, 43 states of the Council of Europe had ratified the protocol. Poland is scheduled to deposit the instruments of ratification before the Council of Europe in October 2013. Armenia has signed the protocol but has yet to ratify it. Neither Azerbaijan nor Russia have signed or ratified the protocol.
  • UN resolutions for a global moratorium on executions:
    In 2007, the UN pronounced the first resolution for a global moratorium on executions. Other moratorium resolutions followed in 2008, 2010 and 2012. They were a gauge of progress towards universal abolition of the death penalty. In 2012, 111 of the 193 member states voted in favour of the resolution.  
  • Prohibition of capital punishment in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989):
    Capital punishment was prohibited for offences committed by persons below 18 years of age. Switzerland ratified the convention in 1994.

World Congress and World Day against the Death Penalty
Since 2001, the World Congress against the Death Penalty has taken place every three years, each time in a different country. The cities to have hosted the event previously are Geneva (2010), Paris (2007), Montreal (2004) and Strasbourg (2001). In June 2013, Switzerland was one of the patrons of the 5th world congress in Madrid along with Spain, France and Norway. Some 1,500 participants from more than 90 countries met to discuss national, regional and international efforts to abolish the death penalty. During the congress, Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter restated Switzerland’s goal of a world without the death penalty.

The International Commission against the Death Penalty was founded at the 4th World Congress against the Death Penalty in Geneva. According to former Federal Councillor Ruth Dreifuss, a member of the commission, its aim is to raise awareness and persuade as many countries and stakeholders as possible to commit themselves to the goal of abolition. It wants to achieve a moratorium on executions in countries with the death penalty by 2015.

The World Day against the Death Penalty on 10 October was launched by the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, which is made up of 130 non-governmental organisations.

Switzerland and the death penalty: a brief history

The Federal Constitution of 1848 prohibited the death penalty for political offences. Individual cantons subsequently abolished the death penalty entirely. The Federal Constitution of 1874 prohibited the death penalty for the whole of Switzerland. Just five years later, however, the federal government returned power to the cantons to legislate on the death penalty. 



From 1848 onwards, the death penalty was only enforced on rare occasions, and in most cases a reprieve was granted. The last civilian execution took place in 1940 in Sarnen in canton Obwalden, with the beheading of a man from Zurich for triple murder. 



Upon the introduction of the Swiss Civil Code of 1942, the death penalty disappeared in the whole of Switzerland from civil criminal law. It remained in military criminal law until 1992 for offences such as treason, aiding the enemy, murder and pillaging. During the Second World War, 17 members of the Swiss army were sentenced to death for treason and shot. 



The Federal Constitution of 2000 declares in article 10 paragraph 1: “Every person has the right to life. The death penalty is prohibited."

Facts and figures

  • According to the country list from April 2013, 97 states and two territories have completely abolished the death penalty, including Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, the Philippines and Switzerland.
  • In eight countries the law only provides for the death penalty for extraordinary offences such as war crimes: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Fiji, Israel, Kazakhstan and Peru.
  • According to Amnesty International, 35 countries are abolitionist in practice but have not yet abolished the death penalty by law. These include Liberia, Mali, Niger, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Tunisia. If no execution has occurred in a country for 10 years, the country is said to have a de facto moratorium. This moratorium is not legally binding, however, and can be lifted.
  • Some 57 countries and one territory retain and continue to enforce the death penalty, including Lebanon, South Sudan, Syria, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and the USA.
  • After long periods with no executions, certain states including Botswana, Gambia, India, Japan, Kuwait and Nigeria have enforced the death penalty again since 2012.
  • In 2012 according to Amnesty International, people were beheaded (Saudi-Arabia), hanged (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Botswana, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, the occupied Palestinian territories, South Sudan, Sudan), shot (Belarus, China, Gambia, North Korea, the occupied Palestinian territories (Hamas authorities in Gaza), Somalia, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen) or killed by lethal injection (China, USA).



    Source: «Amnesty International »