In this handout photo provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the lethal injection facility is shown at San Quentin State Prison on March 13, 2019.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—Getty Images
By Amy Gunia
April 10, 2019

Fewer people faced death penalty executions worldwide in 2018 than at any point in the past decade, according to a new report by advocacy group Amnesty International.

Across 20 countries, at least 690 executions were known to have taken place last year, a 31% decrease from the 993 recorded in 2017, the annual report released Wednesday said. The drop is mainly due to an amendment of Iran’s drug laws, which saw executions reduced by 50%, from 507 in 2017 to 253 in 2018.

Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia also carried out fewer executions.

“This is a hopeful indication that it’s only a matter of time before this cruel punishment is consigned to history, where it belongs,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said in a statement.

Even factoring in the decrease however, Iran is still one of the world’s leading executioners. According to Amnesty, more than half of the known executions were carried out in Iran and Saudi Arabia. China, where the numbers are classified but estimates suggest thousands of people are put to death each year, is believed to be the world’s top executioner.

Despite the overall decline, several countries increased their use of capital punishment in 2018, including Belarus, Japan, Singapore, South Sudan and the United States. Japan and Singapore both reported their highest number of executions in a decade. In the U.S., the number grew marginally for the second consecutive year, to 25 in 2018.

Read More: The Death Penalty Could Become a 2020 Issue. But Many Conservatives Disagree With Trump

“The positive news of 2018 has been marred by a small number of states who are shamefully determined to buck the trend,” Naidoo said.

Thailand re-introduced executions after not putting anyone to death since 2009, and Sri Lanka threatened to emulate the Philippines by using capital punishment to fight drug use and narcotics trafficking.

Vietnam, for which figures are normally not obtainable, was found in 2018 to be one of the world’s top executioners, with 85 death penalties implemented.

But globally, abolition of the death penalty appears to be gaining traction. Burkina Faso eliminated the death penalty, while Gambia and Malaysia both declared moratoriums.

In December last year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution with the support of 121 member states supporting a global moratorium on the punishment.

“The increased support for the 2018 resolution constitutes a further indication that a global consensus is building to consign the death penalty to the history books,” Amnesty’s report reads.

Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com.

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