UNITED NATIONS — The death penalty is steadily receding toward the dustbin of history worldwide, with fewer than two dozen countries relying on it at all as a form of punishment. Yet a handful of countries have been especially eager to mete out capital punishment, including against those convicted of nonlethal crimes, while some countries that had discontinued capital punishment have resumed the practice, especially in what they consider to be terrorism cases.
All told, in 2014, at least 2,466 people were sentenced to death — a 28 percent increase from 2013, according to an annual tally by Amnesty International.
Among the leading executioners in the world are the archrivals of the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it was Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, on Saturday that led to an unraveling of diplomatic ties between the two nations and raised apprehensions of a widening sectarian crisis in the region.China leads the world in executions, according to human rights groups, although no recent figures are available because death sentences are a state secret. The United States and Iraq round out the list of the top five countries that resort to capital punishment.
They are in a minority of nations. A total of 105 countries have abolished the death penalty, with Suriname and Mongolia the latest to do so. According to the United Nations, 60 other countries allow for the death penalty but have not carried it out in a decade, making them what the United Nations calls “de facto abolitionists.”
Only 28 countries have retained capital punishment on their books and used it in the last 10 years. “It is a troubling paradox that while the majority of countries have abandoned the use of the death penalty, the overall number of those sentenced to death has been increasing recently,” said Ivan Simonovic, the United Nations assistant secretary general for human rights.
“Terrorism offenses and drug-related offenses seem to be the driving arguments behind this increase, although there is no evidence of its deterring effects,” Mr. Simonovic said. In 2014, Saudi Arabia executed at least 90 people, according to Amnesty International. A separate tally, kept by Human Rights Watch, said that Saudi Arabia put to death 158 prisoners last year.
Among the charges against Sheikh Nimr was “inciting sectarian strife.” Mr. Simonovic said his execution was in breach of an international covenant, which allows for the use of capital punishment only in the most serious crimes. The Saudis, however, contend that the sheikh was involved in terrorism.
Saudi Arabia is an elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, stopped short of criticizing the kingdom, expressing only his “disappointment” with the executions. He said he had conveyed his opposition to the death penalty in a telephone call with the Saudi foreign minister on Monday.
Iran has been even more ardent in using the death penalty, executing at least 289 people in 2014, including for drug offenses, according to the Amnesty International report. Among the most recent executions in Iran was that of a woman convicted of killing her husband, whom she was forced to marry at 16.
Some countries have returned to using capital punishment after suspending the practice for many years. Jordan and Pakistan resumed executions late in 2014, mostly in terrorism cases. Pakistan has put to death an estimated 300 people since then.
That year, Egypt, on more than one occasion, sentenced several hundred citizens to death, many of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who had participated in violent political protests in which a police officer was killed.
The United Nations says China carries out the largest number of executions, estimating that 6,687 people were put to death there from 1999 to 2003.
While the United States is one of the top five executioners, there has been an effort among state governments to limit the use of the death penalty (the federal government still uses it, though rarely). At least 12 states have a moratorium or an official hold on the use of the death penalty, and in several others, courts are considering challenges to execution by lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Twenty-eight people were executed in the United States last year, continuing a six-year decline.
India, the second-most populous country in the world, still has the death penalty, too, and last used it in July to execute one of the central figures in a deadly series of bombings in Mumbai in 1993. The condemned man, Yakub Memon, was only the fourth person executed in India since 2000, although in 2014, three men convicted of raping a photojournalist in Mumbai were sentenced to death under new sex crime laws.
In the Islamic world, the authorities often argue that capital punishment is justified under Shariah law. But the punishment is used on virtually every continent. In South America, for instance, Trinidad and Tobago retain the death penalty, as do several countries in Africa, including Guinea and Zimbabwe.
The Saudi executions did not figure in a Security Council statement that was issued Monday evening. The statement condemned the ransacking and burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah bin Yahya Almoalimi, told reporters Monday evening that the 47 prisoners executed on Saturday had been charged in a variety of crimes, including sedition and aiding terrorists.
He said he expected support from the Council in the form of a statement condemning the attacks on the Saudi consulate.