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World Court Orders U.S. to Stop Executing Mexicans

by Matthew T. Clarke

On January 5, 2003, Mexico applied for an injunction from the International Court of Justice, or World Court, to halt the execution of 54 of its citizens by the United States. Mexico claimed that none of them had been accorded their rights under Articles 5 and 36 of the 1936 Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, which requires local officials to immediately inform an arrested foreign nation of the right to contact and enjoy free and privileged communications with the foreign person's consular officials.

"All of the relevant paragraphs used `shall' language and they don't say, "Wouldn't it be nice if a signatory did this?"' said Jordan Paust of the University of Houston Law Center. "This language expressly talks about human rights. I don't think the United States generally disagrees with this. As a matter of treaty law and generally within the domestic legal federal process, these treaty obligations are self-executing. Your laws must provide full effect, and if they don't, you're in violation of the treaty."

On February 5, 2003, the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands, issued an injunction ordering the United States to stay the execution of the three Mexican citizens at greatest risk of being executed before the lengthy case can be decided. Osvaldo Torres Aguilera is awaiting execution in Oklahoma. Cesar Fierro Reyna and Roberto Moreno are on Death Row in Texas. None of the three has a set execution date.

On February 6, 2003, a defiant Texas flaunted the World Court's authority. "According to our reading of the law and treaty, there is no authority for the federal government or this World Court to prohibit Texas from exercising the laws passed by our legislature," said Gene Acuna, spokesman for Texas governor Rick Perry.

Twice in the past the World Court attempted to force a stay of execution while it decided this issue. In those cases, the United States ignored the orders and executed the prisoners, claiming that the executive branch of the federal government was unable to stay a state execution. In this case, the World Court's order is more strongly worded than previous orders. The order clearly states that it is binding.

"The injunction is actually more strongly worded and says that the U.S. must take not just all measures at its disposal, but all measures necessary to ensure these people are not executed," says Steven R. Ratner of the University of Texas Law School.

In issuing the injunction, the unanimous 15-member International Court of Justice rejected U.S. arguments that it would be a de facto prohibition on executing Mexican citizens that would interfere with U.S. sovereign rights and federalism. Sandra Babcock, attorney for Mexico, noted that it would set a dangerous precedent that could only bode ill for Americans accused of crimes in other countries if the United States ignored the ruling.

This takes place against a background of highly charged emotions in Mexico, where it is generally believed that the U.S. death penalty is applied disproportionately to Hispanics and other minorities. The death penalty and life sentences are unconstitutional in Mexico. The United States has an abysmal record of flouting the orders of the World Court and other international bodies, and frequently attempts to block treaties on human rights. In May, 2002, the United States withdrew from a UN plan to create an international war crimes court.

In July 2002, the United States attempted to block a vote on a UN plan to enforce the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The U.S. feared that the Optional Protocol would lead to UN monitors visiting U.S. prisons in the aftermath of 9-11. The U.S. was joined by such notable countries as China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Lybia and Sudan in opposing the Optional Protocol.

The Optional Protocol to the ten-year old UN Convention Against Torture was put forward by Costa Rica and supported by the European Union, many Latin American, Caribbean, and African countries. It creates an international body of experts attached to the UN Committee Against Torture with the mandate to visit places of detention, monitor them, and ensure that prisoners are not tortured. The U.S. attempted to prevent its adoption by asking that the text be reopened and subjected to further consultations. However, the U.S. proposal was voted down 29-15, with 8 abstentions, and the plan was adopted by a vote of 35-8 with 10 abstentions in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on July 24, 2002.

On September 27, 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a seven-member panel of the Organization of American States, invoked an emergency procedure ordering the United States to take immediate steps to protect the rights of immigration detainees incarcerated in a massive post-9-11 sweep. The International Human Rights Law Group, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization filed the case on behalf of dozens of INS detaineesMuslim men of Arab or South Asian descentwho have not been charged with or accused of terrorism. They are willing to leave the U.S. but are being detained on the presumption that their links to terrorism might be proven in the future. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has previously noted that the United States has neither shown any basis under domestic law or international law for the detainees' continued detention, nor responded to the detainees' allegations of verbal and physical abuse during their detention.

Sources: National Law Journal, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press

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