What goes around

April 02, 2004

BY ORDERING the United States to re-examine the death penalty cases of 51 Mexicans who were denied the right to contact a Mexican consular official, the International Court of Justice on Wednesday challenged this country to bring its law enforcement practices into line with its democratic values.

How embarrassing that a clean-your-own-house rebuke comes at a time of already strained American credibility in world affairs. And how chilling a reminder this is, yet again, of the fragility of that principle we call justice in capital cases.

The global implications of America's repeated violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention are obvious: Failing to notify an arrested foreign national of the right to contact his or her consul, while demanding respect for the rights of Americans abroad, is a dangerous hypocrisy. Why should the world honor an American's right to call on consular help when accused of a crime, if the same right is not extended on U.S. soil to visitors, immigrants and, yes, even illegal aliens?

The world court rejected Mexico's request to overturn the sentences of its citizens on American death rows; instead, it said each one's case must be examined by the courts to determine whether access to diplomatic assistance - such as referrals to defense lawyers who speak their language, or visas for witnesses - might have affected the outcome.

The Bush administration has not said how or whether it will implement the order, after arguing in vain that clemency proceedings could provide the necessary due process and that the U.S. legal system afforded the Mexican nationals a fair trial. Though the United States has ignored the treaty, related court orders in the past have led to some reforms: The State Department, for example, helps guide and train law enforcement agencies on notifying foreign citizens of their rights.

Clearly, more must be done to ensure that police agencies and criminal court judges recognize that their actions in such cases affect America's standing in the world's eyes - and that justice in death-eligible cases involving foreigners includes honoring rights protected by the treaty.

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