Weakening basic protection for traveling Americans

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Dale McFeatters

Scripps Howard News Service

For a brief period, it looked like the Bush administration had turned over a new leaf in its general hostility to international institutions.

Acting under a protocol - that the United States itself had proposed - to a long-standing treaty on consular relations, the International Court of Justice ordered U.S. state courts to rehear the cases of 51 Mexican nationals on American death rows. The grounds for the order was that the inmates had not been granted the prompt access to diplomats from their own country that the treaty calls for.

In a surprising move, given what the administration normally thinks of international courts, the Bush administration ordered the states to comply. (Some states dispute that the administration has this power, but that's a separate issue.)

Then the White House dropped the other shoe. It abruptly announced that the United States was withdrawing from the protocol.

The legal implications of this may become clearer later this month when the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a petition for a new trial by Jose Ernesto Medellin, a Mexican national sentenced to death by a Texas court for the rape and murder of two teenagers.

Mexico argues that its diplomats could have assured Medellin of competent representation if they had known he was in jail. As it is, they didn't find out about him until he had been on death row for three years. And there is apparent merit to their arguments. Medellin was represented by an attorney suspended from law practice who failed to call any witnesses.

The United States remains a signatory to the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations that guarantees foreigners placed under arrest prompt access to their nation's consulates. However, the protocol that the U.S. renounced - giving the world court jurisdiction to hear these cases - is an incentive for countries to abide by that treaty.

The United States successfully sued Iran in 1979 over the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The world court's ruling might have influenced Iran not to treat the hostages any worse than they had already.

In turning its back on this treaty, the administration may well have weakened a basic protection for traveling Americans.

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