Violating International Law
Imagine yourself traveling in a foreign country, and suddenly, in either circumstances beyond your control or an incident where your judgment seems to have flown out the window, you find yourself in hand-cuffs, staring blankly into the eyes of an angry police officer, who is yelling at you in a totally unintelligible language. You have no idea what you have done wrong, but it must be serious because you're being hauled off to jail. At a moment like this, while you sit scared in your small prison cell, one of the only comforting thoughts that may find its way past your fear is that you are an American citizen. Someone will surely come to your rescue soon. An attorney from your Consulate will be coming by any second to get you out of this hell.And if countries around the world abide by international law, specifically Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, you are right. But the concern of human rights organizations is now that the United States has shown a pattern of violating this multilateral treaty what is to say that countries around the world may not follow suit? As a result, they argue, it is not unreasonable to assume that Americans traveling or living abroad are at greater risk of having their legal and human rights ignored. Under the terms of Article 36 in the Vienna Convention, arresting authorities are required to immediately notify a detained foreigner of their right to contact and seek assistance from their consulate. At the prisoner's request, authorities must then facilitate communications with the consulate. The Convention is a cornerstone of international diplomatic relations and has been ratified by the United States and some 140 other nations.On June 18, a Mexican citizen was executed in Texas for murder amid failed pleas by his government, human rights organizations, law firms and prominent individuals across North America to spare his life. Tristan Montoya was sentenced to death in 1986, when he was 18 years old. According to his lawyers, he underwent a lengthy police interrogation without the presence of an attorney or the assistance of the Mexican Consulate. Tristan Montoya, a laborer with a fifth-grade education, signed a four-page confession in English, a language that he did not read, speak nor understand. If the Vienna Convention had been fulfilled, the consular offices in Mexico could have provided Tristan Montoya with a bi-lingual attorney and proper representation during the trial. In what Amnesty International calls "a blatant example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty," Juan Villavicencio was also charged for the crime, but he testified against Tristan Montoya and was acquitted in a separate trial. "By executing Tristan Montoya over the protest of the Mexican government, Texas has, in effect, put at risk Americans abroad," says William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "If our country allows for the abrogation of international treaties when it comes to foreign nationals in our country, what moral authority will we have to demands adherence to those same rules for our citizens traveling and living overseas?" According to Mark Warren of Amnesty International, Ontario, Canada, of the current 62 known cases of foreign citizens -- representing 15 different countries -- under sentence of death in the US, at least 32 were effectively denied access to their consular assistance (there are undoubtedly more, since not all of them have counsel). None of the five foreign nationals who have made the claim that their treaty rights were not honored after their arrest have won a new trial.The execution of Tristan Montoya has prompted Mexico's Department of Foreign Affairs to present the US State Department with a diplomatic note of protest. The Mexico's Department claims the United States violated the Vienna Convention by denying Montoya due process of law, and it also called the death penalty "cruel and inhuman punishment." In an open letter to Texas Governor Bush, signatories from human rights organizations, law firms and universities, wrote, "We live in an interconnected global society which functions only to the degree that all nations and states live up to their international commitments. It is this principle of reciprocity which regulates world trade, global security and the universal protection of human rights. Sadly, Texas is failing to meet a basic legal obligation to the world community, undermining respect for the rule of law everywhere."During the week of Tristan Montoya's execution, the US' violation of the Vienna Convention and Tristan Montoya's denied legal rights was the top story in most Mexican media. La Jornada, a Mexican newspaper, wrote that the execution "provoked in Mexican society stupor, indignation, helplessness, pain and severe criticism of the United States and its judicial system."In several recent cases of foreign nationals under sentence of death who were denied their consular rights, the US State Department has apologized to the nationals' home governments, following investigations by state authorities, but apologies do not prevent wrongful executions, nor cure violations of international treaties, argues Amnesty. The State Department has repeatedly emphasized the high importance that the US attaches to the Vienna Convention, but human rights organizations believe it needs to take immediate steps to ensure that this kind of blatant disregard of international treaties never happens again. Recently, a letter was sent to Bacre Walye Ndaiye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions, at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The letter points out the systematic failure of US authorities to provide foreign nationals with consular notification and calls on the Rapporteur to make immediate inquiries of the State Department. It is signed by several attorneys representing death-sentenced foreign nationals in the USA.One of the US death penalty cases citing a breach of the Vienna Convention is that of Joseph Stanley Faulder, a Canadian on death row in Texas. Canadian authorities were not notified of Faulder's arrest for over 15 years. In the case, Texas officials eventually admitted breaching the Vienna Convention but dismissed the violations as "harmless error." In Faulder's trial, the fact that Faulder suffered a severe head injury as a three-year-old which resulted in damage to the part of the brain regulating appropriate behavioral decisions was evidence not presented by his court appointed attorney. Faulder was recently given an indefinite stay of execution by a Texas appeal court, due to evidence suggesting that the prosecution knew one of their star witnesses was lying. Taking the Vienna Convention legal issue a step further, Paraguay recently filed a civil suit against Virginia Governor George Allen and other state officials, aiming to bring an end to their continuing violations of Article 36 and the treaty between the united States and Paraguay. Paraguay is suing over the arrest and detention of Angel Breard and is asking the federal court to stop the execution and try Breard again with Paraguay's participation. Richmond US District Court Judge Richard Williams ruled against Paraguay last November, although he said he was troubled by Virginia's failure to follow international law. He ruled he had no authority to hear the case because the 11th Amendment to the US Constitution bars suits in federal court by foreign governments against American states. "Capital punishment does not address by any means the root causes of violent crime in America," says Schulz. "Twenty-five years after the Supreme Court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional, capital punishment still reflects the worst parts of the justice system: racism, xenophobia, unfair treatment of the poor and mentally unstable, and inadequate legal defense. But, whether or not one supports the death penalty, violation of international treaties by our country has to be of concern." "Tristan Montoya's execution and the other death penalty cases pending undermine the same international treaty that protects Americans' rights if they are arrested and detained in foreign lands," says Warren. "If the United States violates the Vienna Convention, it is easy to imagine other countries responding in like fashion."Jenna E. Ziman is a Washington D.C-based freelance writer. SIDEBAR:FACTS AND FIGURES ON THE DEATH PENALTYMore than half the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Amnesty International's latest information shows that: * Fifty-eight countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. * Fifteen countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes such as wartime crimes.* Twenty-seven countries can be considered abolitionist de facto: they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past 10 years or more, making a total of 100 countries which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.* Ninety-four other countries retain and use the death penalty. * During 1996, 4,272 prisoners are known to have been executed in 39 countries and 7,107 sentenced to death in 76 countries. (These figures include only cases known to Amnesty International; the true figures are certainly higher.)* Amnesty International received reports of 3,500 executions in China, 167 executions in Ukraine, 140 executions in the Russian Federation and 110 executions in Iran. These four countries alone accounted for 92 percent of all executions recorded by Amnesty International worldwide in 1996. * Five countries since 1990 are known to have executed prisoners who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime -- Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, USA and Yemen. The majority of known executions of juvenile offenders was in the USA (6 since 1990).* Three hundred fifty people convicted of capital crimes in the USA between 1900 and 1985 were innocent of the crimes charged. Twenty-three were actually executed. * A US Congressional report by the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights in October 1993 listed 48 condemned men who had been freed from death row since 1972.* Seven individuals were recently released from death row in the state of Illinois. Four of them were declared innocent of their alleged crimes not through the workings of the judicial system but the intervention of journalists and journalism students.* More than 3,150 prisoners were under sentence of death in the United States at the end of September 1996.* By the end of June of 1997, it is believed the United States will execute its 400th person since the use of the death penalty was resumed in 1977.