Thursday, March 10, 2005

THE WASHINGTON POST reports today that the United States has announced its withdrawal from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Vienna Convention states that, when a foreigner is arrested by a signatory country, that country must inform the arrested person that she or he has the right to speak with a consular official from her or his own country. The Optional Protocol goes one step further and gives the International Court of Justice the final say if an individual is arrested in a country not his own, and either is denied the right to speak with a diplomatic official from his or her own country, or is not informed of that right.

The United States itself proposed this Optional Protocol back in 1963 to protect American citizens traveling or living abroad. Recently, however, a growing number of countries have filed complaints with the ICJ alleging that the United States imposed death sentences on their citizens without allowing them to meet with diplomatic personnel from their home country. Then a Mexican citizen convicted on charges of rape and murder by a U.S. court and sentenced to be executed appealed to the ICJ on the same grounds.

All of these cases, of course, have taken place in the context of strong disapproval of the U.S. death penalty by governments that have all abolished capital punishment in their own countries.

Now the State Department says:

"The International Court of Justice has interpreted the Vienna Consular Convention in ways that we had not anticipated that involved state criminal prosecutions and the death penalty, effectively asking the court to supervise our domestic criminal system. ..."

Translation: We initiated the Optional Protocols to the Vienna Convention so that American citizens could not be deprived of their rights if arrested in foreign countries. For some reason other countries who signed think this treaty applies to the treatment of their citizens when arrested in the United States. It was never our intention that any other country should conclude that the rights set forth in these Protocols applied to all the countries that signed it. We assumed everyone would know those rights applied only to the United States, and its citizens traveling or living abroad.

In the case of the Mexican death row inmate, the ICJ reached a decision last year that Mexico's rights under the Protocols had been violated. The case is currently in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the inmate is seeking to have the ICJ's decision affirmed. The Bush administration had to grant new hearings for 51 other convicted death row prisoners from Mexico, or face the political fallout of openly defying the ruling upholding a treaty the U.S. had proposed and signed.

Naturally, the Bush administration is furious at the idea of the United States having to adjust its treasured institution of state-sanctioned murder, simply to be in compliance with an international treaty -- even if the U.S. signed that treaty. We're not going to stop putting people to death, the U.S. government is saying, and if being part of this treaty means we can't execute foreigners arrested in our country, then we'll withdraw from the treaty. Even if withdrawing from the treaty means that our own citizens will be in greater danger when they are in foreign countries.

And as my lawyer friend at Barnes & Noble told me today, it's perfectly legal for the United States to withdraw from the treaty, because the Constitution calls for the Senate's "advice and consent" to make treaties, but says absolutely nothing about withdrawing from treaties.

The larger point, of course, is the inconsistency and hypocrisy we display when we lecture other countries, like Iran and Syria and North Korea, about "meeting their international obligations" when the United States is so unwilling to respect international norms that we will actually withdraw from a treaty that we ourselves created just so we will not have to abide by it ourselves.

But when has our government ever modeled the kind of behavior it asks (actually, demands, on threat of war) of other nations?

As far as I can tell, Maha is the only blogger among the ones I read regularly who has written about this news item. And her post is excellent.

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