Human Rights Law Centre

Life Imprisonment Worldwide Revisited

This research project, supported by HRLC, brings together an interdisciplinary team to examine life imprisonment on a global scale.

Emeritus Professor Dirk van Zyl Smit and Zinat Jimada at the School of Law, in partnership with Dr Catherine Appleton at the Centre for Research and Education in Security, Prisons and Forensic Psychiatry, St Olavs University Hospital and the Department of Mental Health, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, are revising and updating the global study on life imprisonment, first published in 2019. They are working together with a global community of scholars and practitioners in law, criminal justice and penology to collate information on life imprisonment around the world.  

Since 2014, the researchers have studied the imposition and implementation of life imprisonment in order to be able to understand the different types of life sentences, how many persons are sentenced to life imprisonment, which crimes attract life sentences, how such sentences are implemented, and the conditions under which prisoners serve them. They have assessed critically the practice of life imprisonment in the light of human rights principles and standards developed by international human rights bodies and national courts.

One of the main aims of this project has been to provide clear and principled guidance to policy makers and practitioners on when and how life imprisonment, if it is used as a punishment at all, should be imposed and implemented. The project has resulted in three major books on life imprisonment: 

Life Imprisonment in Asia (an edited collection)

 LI in Asia - book cover









Published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2023.

Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis

LI book (2019) cover










Published by Harvard University Press in 2019 and now available in Spanish.

Life Imprisonment and Human Rights











Published by Hart Publishing in 2016.


The substantive research conducted by the Life Imprisonment Worldwide Project is complemented by a campaign to increase its impact. With support from an ESRC Impact Accelerator Award, key findings of the research were published in 2018 in a joint policy briefing on Life Imprisonment with Penal Reform International.

The policy briefing examines the use of life imprisonment against the background of Goal 16 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Nelson Mandela Rules on the Standard Minimum Treatment of Prisoners and other international standards. The briefing concludes that urgent changes are required to the way life imprisonment is imposed and implemented to make it human rights compliant. These include the abolition of life without parole sentences and the recommendation that life sentences should never be mandatory.

The current project started in September 2020. It is the result of a global academic and practitioner network working on life imprisonment across world regions, sub-continents and jurisdictions.

The project aims to:

  • revise, update and develop survey data from the original research study to capture significant changes in the field of life imprisonment worldwide since 2014

  • provide new, timely and accessible knowledge about the penalty of life imprisonment across different jurisdictions

  • work together with Penal Reform International and the United Nations to change law, policy and practice on life imprisonment at the international level

Project team


On 6 July 2021, Dr Appleton and Emeritus Professor van Zyl Smit were interviewed by the Economist about their research. They explain why and how the recourse to life sentences is increasing worldwide, why scepticism about life sentences is spreading, and how campaigners use the courts to curb life sentences. They also question whether life sentences are excessively harsh or not.


On 23 February 2023, Dr Appleton and Emeritus Professor van Zyl Smit were invited by the Council of Europe to assist in the organisation of, and participate in, a workshop for judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers and correctional service staff in Moldova. The workshop was held under the auspices of the Council of Europe Project ‘‘Strengthening the Human Rights Compliant Criminal Justice System in the Republic of Moldova’’. The aim of the workshop was to have a human rights informed debate about the current life sentence system in Moldova. 







Photo of a life imprisonment conference






Human Rights Law Centre

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