Several of the inhibitor of apoptosis protein (IAP) family members regulate apoptosis in response to various cellular assaults. Some members are also involved in cell signalling, mitosis and targeting proteins to the ubiquitin-proteasome degradation machinery. The most intensively studied family member, X-linked IAP (XIAP), is a potent inhibitor of caspase activity; hence, it is generally assumed that direct caspase inhibition is an important conserved function of most members of the family. Biochemical and structural studies have precisely mapped the elements of XIAP required for caspase inhibition. Intriguingly, these elements are not conserved among IAPs. Here, we review current knowledge of the caspase-inhibitory potential of the human IAPs and show that XIAP is probably the only bona fide caspase inhibitor, suggesting that the other family members never gained the ability to directly inhibit caspase activity.