One of the long-term trends from a human rights perspective is that fewer countries are using the death penalty. Just five countries are now responsible for the overwhelming majority of judicial executions – and the United States finds itself in company it might regard as unsalubrious.

Data released to mark “World Day Against The Death Penalty”, last Thursday, shows that 94 countries have abolished the death penalty in law (Albania, Rwanda, and the Cook Islands have joined the list during 2008) while another forty no longer execute offenders although they retain the right to do so.

Worldwide there were around 1,250 executions, of which almost nine-tenths took place in five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States. China leads on this grisly league table, while there are 7,500 people on death row in Pakistan.

Most of the related trends suggest that the world is moving, slowly, away from judicial murder. In Europe only one state, Belarus, still retains the death penalty (abolition is a condition of EU membership). According to Amnesty, in central Asia a number of countries have restricted use of the death penalty: Kyrgyzstan has abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes, Kazakhstan has had a moratorium on executions since 2003, and Tajikistan has had moratoriums on executions and death sentences since 2004. In Africa, the high court in Malawi has declared the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional while Burundi, Gabon and Mali are taking steps towards abolition.

And even in the Unites States, the number of executions fell to 53 in 2006, from a peak in the 1990s; it is the only country in the Americas to use the death penalty. Japan, meanwhile, seems to be running against trend, with an apparent increase in judicial execution.