Abolition of the death penalty is protected by Protocol 13, Article 1 of the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act formally abolished the death penalty in the UK. This means that a public official, including the police or courts, cannot execute someone or sentence them to death as punishment for something they have done. This applies in all circumstances, including during peacetime and times of conflict. The death penalty is sometimes referred to as capital punishment.

Sentencing a person to death is considered to be a violation of the right to life (Article 2) and the right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3), which are both also protected under the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act also means that the UK cannot extradite people (that is, deport people to stand trial in another country), if there is a real risk that they could be sentenced to death or executed.

Can this right be restricted by a public official?

No. This right is an absolute right, which means it cannot be restricted or interfered with by public officials under any circumstances.

What duties do public officials have?

To respect your right: 

This means that public officials must not execute you or sentence you to death. 

To protect your right: 

Public officials must take reasonable steps to protect this right if they know it is at risk. For example, if you face deportation to stand trial in another country where the death penalty is available, and there is a real risk you could be executed or sentenced to death.

To fulfil your right: 

This means that there must be an investigation when public officials may have failed to protect this right. 

Rights in Action: Abolition of the Death Penalty

The last execution in the UK took place in August 1964. The following year, Parliament passed a law suspending the death penalty across Great Britain (this did not extend to Northern Ireland) for all crimes except high treason, “piracy with violence”, arson in royal dockyards, and espionage. It was only with the Human Rights Act coming into force in 1998 that the death penalty was banned under UK law in all circumstances.

The UK is a member state of the Council of Europe which drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. The Council of Europe has made abolition of the death penalty a prerequisite of membership. As a result, nobody has been executed in any of the Council of Europe’s member states since 1997.

Rights in Action: The Isis ‘Beatles’

In 2018, the UK government was criticised over its position on the death penalty in an extradition case. The US government had alleged that two men, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were members of the Islamic State cell known as ‘the Isis Beatles’ and had committed executions of US and UK captives. These are claims which Kotey and Elsheikh deny. They were British citizens, however due to their links with Isis the UK government stripped them of their citizenship. This decision was challenged by Kotey and Elsheikh, claiming that it was unlawful.

Normally, if the UK government knows someone would be at risk of being given the death penalty if they are extradited to another country, it will seek assurances that the death penalty will not be given. In this case, the US (where the death penalty is still available in some states) intended to send Kotey and Elsheikh to Guantanamo Bay without trial. The then home secretary, Sajid Javid, wrote to the US attorney general saying “I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought.”

The UK government’s decision to strip Kotey and Elsheikh of their British citizenship came under attack as putting their human rights at risk, namely their right to a fair trial and their right to be protected from the death penalty. You can read BIHR’s blog on this here.

The UK has more recently renewed its commitment to opposing the death penalty. In February 2021, the UK International Ambassador for Human Rights delivered a statement saying:

“The UK believes that the use of the death penalty undermines human dignity; any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable, and there is no conclusive evidence of it working as a deterrent to crime.”