Life, not death, as the standard of justice

In December, the African nation of Zambia simultaneously enacted one new law abolishing the death penalty and another decriminalizing defamation of the president. That unusual combination of legal reforms – in some countries, dissent is still a capital offense – uniquely captured a shift in global norms. Zambia embraced a type of justice that views individuals as capable of innocence and goodness.

The shift in norms is clear from a new global survey on the death penalty by Amnesty International. While known executions rose 53% in 2022 – mainly in a small club of outliers including China, North Korea, and Iran – the real trend is in the other direction. Six countries ended the death penalty altogether. Several more adopted or extended moratoriums. “Notwithstanding the drawbacks … the world continued to move away from the death penalty,” the report stated.

In one measure of that progress, 125 nations – nearly two-thirds of all U.N. members – have signed a United Nations moratorium on use of the death penalty. Governments aren’t the only actors making the shift. In Colombia, for example, the end of a long civil war in 2016 was marked by reconciliation between the combatants – leftist guerrillas and the military – and families of their victims.