us mexico relations, mexico execution, texas execution
Texas Department of Criminal Justice/AP
Executed death row inmate José Medellin

International Courts Rule Against Texas Execution

January 20, 2009 01:31 PM
by Isabel Cowles
After an International Court of Justice ruling, the United Nations said America breached international law by executing a Mexican national in Texas.

Texas Execution Violated International Law

The United Nations issued a statement yesterday asserting that the United States breached an earlier order by executing a Mexican foreign-national, José Medellin, in Aug. 2008. The ruling was made by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague.

At the same time, the court ruled against a renewed bid by Mexico to push the United States to re-examine the cases of 51 Mexicans sentenced to death in America, Agence France-Press reports.

In 2004 the ICJ ruled that the U.S. had violated the 1963 Vienna Convention by not informing the Mexicans sentenced to death of their right to contact a consular for aid. The court ruled that the convictions be re-examined, although Mexico maintains that reviews have occurred only in a few cases.

The United Nations tribunal published on its Web site yesterday that, “The U.S. has breached the obligation incumbent upon it” following the court’s July 16, 2008 order.

The case has caused divisiveness within the United States itself: members of the Bush administration including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey wrote pleas to the governor of Texas, asking that the state hold off on the executions until international courts settled the issue.

The current ruling emphasizes the pressure of newly sworn-in President Barack Obama to reconcile the federalist position taken by states like Texas with the country’s broad scale international obligations.

Background: Texas executes Medellin

In July the ICJ ruled that the United States had to do everything in its power to ensure that the Mexican prisoners, including Medellin, not be executed while Mexico’s request for reinterpretation of the cases was reviewed by international courts.

On Aug. 4, Texas executed Medellin by lethal injection, ignoring the Bush administration and court’s requests to delay the event.

Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, told the press in August that the governor did not feel pressured by requests to stop the execution. Castle noted that Medellin and five others had gang-raped, strangled, kicked, slashed and murdered two girls, ages 14 and 16. She added, "We don't care where you're from. If you commit a despicable crime like this in Texas, you'll face the ultimate penalty under our laws."

Medellin was sentenced in 1993 and, according to his attorneys, he was not aware of his consular rights during the trial. It wasn’t until 1997, when his case was upheld, that Medellin wrote to Mexican authorities and earned the attention of the international community.   

Opinion and Analysis: Medellin case highlights federal-state disconnect

According to The Wall Street Journal, the most recent ruling highlights a frequent conflict between Washington and international governments, as individual states and local authorities do not consider the Vienna Convention when determining sentences for convicted criminals within their jurisdictions.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations claimed to have been powerless over states’ decisions. To solve the issue, an annex was added to the treaty, which permitted international courts to settle any such dispute. However, decisions by the ICJ can be enforced only when the Security Council, where the U.S. holds a veto, votes to do so.

Diana Shelton, an international law professor at George Washington University, said the conflict, “makes the U.S. look like it's putting itself above the law.” She also argued that U.S. nationals are put at risk when traveling abroad as American non-compliance with international laws could prompt foreign governments to deny consular access to Americans.

Related Topic: International extradition

The United States is also a sensitive case where international extradition laws are concerned because of its use of the death penalty. According to The Independent, governments surrender their nationals to other countries where they have been convicted of committing a crime, if the requesting state follows certain security guidelines. However, many nations that do not support the death penalty have been reticent to extradite people to the United States.

Reference: Relevant treaties

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations states that arrested aliens must have access to diplomats from their own countries. The convention was drafted in 1963 and ratified by the United States in 1969.

The United Nations Web site provides the U.S. and Mexico Extradition Treaty, which outlines the justifiable instances of extradition from one country to another.

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