The Death Penalty and International Law

Following the first two joint lectures of Doughty Street International and The Hague Institute, the third event of our lecture series entitled ‘International Justice in Practice’ took place on Wednesday the 5th of October, with the generous support of the Embassy of the Slovak Republic in The Netherlands (Slovakia currently holds the rotating EU presidency until the end of 2016). It focused on the death penalty.

The death penalty has been abolished by law or de facto in around two-thirds of the world’s countries. But in 2015, executions still took place in 25 countries, with the highest amount of executions in China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA. Although there are a number of inconsistencies between the death penalty and international human rights standards, its implementation is not forbidden by universally binding international law. As a result, the issue of its use and abolition features prominently in many discussions today.

While during the 71st session of the UN General Assembly in September there would be a reconsideration of the adoption of a resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, Turkey’s President Erdogan said he is preparing to bring back the death penalty following last month’s coup. Support for the death penalty is disproportionately common in Muslim-majority states, which often cite Sharia law as a justification for its imposition. During the drafting of Rome Statute for the ICC, several such countries pushed for the International Criminal Court to have the power to impose capital punishment. This proposal was rejected at the Rome Conference and none of the other international criminal tribunals impose the death penalty. However, while most Rome Statute State Parties would never extradite anyone to stand trial in a country that uses the death penalty without assurances that it would not be used, there is currently nothing in the Rome Statute of the ICC to preclude the judges from ruling a case inadmissible at the ICC, thereby permitting trial in a country that applies the death penalty. This raises issues with the role of the Court (and the UNSC) as to trials in Libya of Saif Gaddafi and Al-Senussi, who were both sentenced to death after a flawed trial in Libya, after having been the subjects of ICC arrest warrants.

  • Edward Fitzgerald QC, joint head of Doughty Street Chambers and member of Doughty Street International will discuss his extensive experience challenging the (mandatory) death penalty in the Caribbean, Africa and in Asia and in particular the international law dimension of these challenges. Edward will discuss some of the landmark cases in which he has appeared before the Privy Council and other international courts.
  • Professor Jennifer Trahan, Associate Professor at NYU, will deal with the linkage between the International Criminal Court and the death penalty.
  • Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve’s Death Penalty team, will speak about her work to abolish the death penalty and to restrict its application worldwide. In particular, Maya was responsible for codifying the scientific case that the lethal injection in the US constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and her work against European complicity in executions exposed the implications of European support for counter-narcotics programmes.
  • Sadakat Kadri, author and barrister (Associate Tenant) at Doughty Street Chambers, will address issues in relation to (mandatory) capital punishment under international and Islamic / Sharia law.

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Aaron Matta, Senior Researcher at the Hague Institute for Global Justice.

Please note: This event has reached capacity. We are no longer accepting RSVPs. We apologize for the inconvenience. If you would like to attend this event, please contact Marie-Laure Poiré at

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