To mark the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty, on 10 October 2020, we have produced a report to assess the use of the death penalty in China against the UN Safeguards. 

These Safeguards set out the minimum standards that must be respected by any country that has not yet abolished the use of the death penalty. Our review of the extent to which China complies with these basic international standards reveals that the country falls woefully short. Overall, we are forced to conclude that the application of the death penalty in China does not comply with the severe restrictions imposed by international law and is, therefore, tantamount to arbitrary execution. 

We have seen, in recent years, what has been described as a retreat from the rule of law in China as the leadership emphasises stability. This trend amplifies the risk of arbitrary execution. Unfair trials, politicised sentencing and the use of the death penalty for drug crime and other offences which do not meet the threshold for “most serious crimes” illustrate what is wrong with the death penalty in China. 

It is difficult to see what factors are likely to drive abolition in the current political environment. There are restraints on civil society, and on public debate. However, there do remain grounds for optimism that when lawyers, students, legal scholars and the general public have a chance to learn and reflect critically on the use of the death penalty support for its use ebbs away.

The use of the death penalty in China has an impact well beyond its borders. Its use undermines the dignity of everyone caught up in a process that undermines the right to life. There is a special obligation on countries that have abolished the death penalty and ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR to challenge China’s use of the death penalty. In the concluding chapter, we set out a number of recommendations based on our findings. 

The report is an updated and expanded version of an interim publication we produced for the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in 2019.

Read in full: Respect for Minimum Standards? Report on the Death Penalty in China

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