A 2010 photo of a lethal execution chamber that was installed in San Quentin State Prison in California. This chamber has never been used; the state has not executed an inmate since 2006. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
When Saudi Arabia killed 47 people—mainly alleged terrorists—in a mass execution on January 2, it was naturally condemned by observers worldwide as inhumane and barbaric. The consequences of the public execution are still rippling outward: Due to Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr being one of the executed, tensions spiked between the Saudis and Iran, with Iranians attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
"[The mass execution was an] utter disregard for human rights," said Chiara Sangiorgio, a death penalty researcher at Amnesty International in London. "Some of them were clearly sentenced to death after grossly unfair trials."
Last year, the Saudi government sentenced 158 people to death, its most since 1995; obviously, the kingdom is on track to surpass that total in 2016 and remains committed to the death penalty. But what often goes unremarked is that Saudi Arabia is one of only a few countries still carrying out executions. It's taken a long time, but capital punishment is gradually fading away around the world.
"The death penalty is on the decline," said Christof Heyns, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the United Nations. "The number of states that actually... hang somebody or shoot somebody, that has been declining every year for the last 20 years." Heyns continued: "Even if you have a spike now with Saudi Arabia executing, I think there is a worldwide move away from the death penalty so I don't think it's sustainable for them to increase the number of people whom they are executing over time."
In Europe, Belarus is the only country continuing to carry out executions. Only four of the 54 member states of the African Union—Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, and Sudan—were known to have carried out judicial executions in 2014, according to Amnesty. Thirty-seven of those states are abolitionist in law or practice.
"The global picture remains clear: Countries that implement the death penalty are an isolated minority," said Sangiorgio. "While Amnesty International recorded executions in 22 countries in 2014, that number was almost double—41—two decades ago in 1995. Even if progress is not as rapid now as in past decades, it is clear that capital punishment is being confined to history."
In 1945, when the United Nations was founded, only eight member countries had abolished the death penalty. Today, more than 90 of the 193 UN countries have gotten rid of capital punishment; 173 were execution-free in 2013.
The outlier that's inevitably cited in every discussion of the death penalty is the United States, the only country in the Americas that continues to carry out execution (with the exception of the tiny St. Kitts and Nevis, which hanged a man in 2008 for killing his wife). Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the US has carried out 1,423 executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center—but even in America this extreme punishment is on the wane.
There were a record 98 executions in the US 1999, but that number has gone down steadily: 39 in 2013, 25 in 2014, and only 28 last year. Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty— most recently Nebraska—and there have been legal battles over the drugs used for lethal injections, which critics say cause agonizing, prolonged deaths and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
"On the negative side," Sangiorgio, the Amnesty researcher, told me, "we have recorded shameful resumption of executions in Indonesia, Chad, and Pakistan, where the execution toll has raised to above 300 in approximately 12 months."
Advocates for capital punishment often cite the death penalty as an effective method of deterrence. But abolition advocates argue that's there's little evidence to support that claim. A 35-year comparison between Hong Kong (which hasn't executed anyone since 1966) and Singapore (where executions became commonplace during the mid 90s, then became less frequent) found no connection between the death penalty and murder rates.
In 2012, the National Research Council found that "research to date is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates." Often, Sangiorgio said, the death penalty is not meant to deter crime but is "used as a political tool to silent dissent and repress opposition."
In places like Saudi Arabia, where the government is in the business of tightly controlling its population, it's a very useful, if brutal, tool, leaving little chance the kingdom will decelerate their bloody pace in 2016, even as the world moves away from executions.
"[Saudi Arabia has] said in the past they would never consider moving away from this," said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. "This is something they justify based on the fact that they implement sharia law." It would be naïve to think such an ideological shift would ever occur overnight.
"To move away from this would mean there was a paradigm shift in the kingdom," Coogle said. "That's hard to imagine."