The execution of Jose Ernesto Medellin: another American middle finger raised at international law

Recently I decided to read the work of Noam Chomsky for the first time, beginning with Hegemony or Survival. I’m a few chapters in now, and one of the points that Chomsky makes is that the United States continues to show blatant disregard and even contempt for international law and institutions such as the United Nations. Chomsky focuses on the start of the war in Iraq in defiance of the Security Council and the UN in general as one of the United States’ most stark dismissals of international law, but also details similar dismissals with regards to other military engagements. He asserts that this is part and parcel of larger project of the United States, which reserves “the right to resort to force to eliminate any perceived challenge to US global hegemony, which is to be permanent.”

For people paying attention, the US’ disregard for international law – as shown through its preemptive strikes, its dismissals of the Geneva Conventions with regards to torture, its secret renditions, and its snubbing of a litany of treaties and agreements – has been worrisome for a long time. As Chomsky asserts, “when the UN fails to serve as ‘an instrument of American unilateralism’ … it is dismissed.” Essentially, the government of the United States believes that it can do whatever the hell it wants, with a big middle finger raised towards any other nation or international organization that calls it on its murderous, imperialistic bullshit. Or, as John Bolton, our illustrious former UN ambassador, put it: “There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.”

So when I read this morning about the Texas execution of a Mexican citizen convicted of murder, the story fit right into the larger pattern of the United States’ perception of itself as supreme. Jose Ernesto Medellin, convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of two teenage girls, was executed Tuesday night despite an order from the International Court of Justice at the Hague to halt the executions of Mexican citizens on Texas’ death row. From the LA Times article:

The International Court of Justice in The Hague sided in 2004 with the Mexican government’s argument that the United States had violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by failing to inform the arrested Mexican nationals of their right to seek help from the Mexican Consulate.

Mexico has asked that all 51 convictions be reviewed, creating the possibility for new trials or outright dismissals. The Hague court had ordered the United States not to execute any of five men on death row in Texas while the court reviewed their cases.

But the court, a branch of the United Nations, has no power to enforce its rulings. A spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has said that “the world court has no standing in Texas.”

Emphasis added, because the statement so clearly crystallizes not only the attitude of the state of Texas, but of the United States as a whole. Surprisingly enough, the Bush administration attempted to intervene and halt the executions: “Mr Bush wrote a two-paragraph memorandum to the Department of Justice saying Texas courts must obey the ICJ ruling and review Mr Medellín’s conviction and sentence to determine whether his rights were violated because he was not allowed to contact his consulate.” However, as the LA Times reports, “the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the administration’s arguments, ruling 6-3 that under the Constitution, the president did not have the ‘unilateral authority’ to compel state officials to comply with an international treaty.”

Interesting. So the President seems to have unilateral authority to do all sorts of awful things, but not when it comes to enforcing international law? I suppose this makes sense, though; after all, why should individual states not follow the example of the larger nation in its utter disregard for the rule of international law? In these executions, Texas is only applying the precedent that the US government has demonstrated time and time again: the United States can do what it wants, and fuck the rest of the world if they complain.

The LA Times reports that “Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International contend that executing foreign citizens in opposition to the court order could put U.S. citizens abroad at risk of being convicted and even executed for crimes without having access to U.S. consulates or embassies.” Jeffrey Davidow, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, expands upon that:

So we now find ourselves on the brink of an irrevocable violation of the most important treaty governing consular assistance for our citizens detained in other countries. A failure to comply with this most basic of treaty commitments would significantly impair the ability of our diplomats and leaders to protect the interests — individual and collective — of Americans abroad. Were the tables turned — American citizens arrested abroad and denied consular access, with an ICJ judgment requiring review of those cases for prejudice, and another nation refusing to comply — our leaders would rightly demand that compliance be forthcoming.

Unfortunately, as the United States continues to flout international law, other nations might not be so interested in extending favor to us that they do not get from us. And why should they? Why should other nations not be allowed to exercise their sovereignty just as the United States does? Oh, that’s right: it’s because the people in power in this nation believe in the Rule of Might over the Rule of Law, and the United States just happens to have the biggest guns.

2 Responses to “The execution of Jose Ernesto Medellin: another American middle finger raised at international law”

  1. 1 edward

    I agree, I think you need to move out of America and do some service work for people in the world that need help, like the poor of the world. I did I live in China now and have no intention of ever moving back to the west. I got too “sick” living there.

    I am afraid that America is painting it’s own demise and flirting with the second foot coming down, the first being 911.

    I am sorry that Americans are not happy with life and are struggling.

  2. 2 Ken

    Actually, you are way off base with your analysis. Medellin v. Texas is about treaty interpretation (whether treaties are self-executing) and constitutional law (separation of powers, Supremacy Clause) and the court analyzed the case using strict Constitutional principles and did not flout international law.

    The United States’s obligation under the UN Charter is to “undertake to comply” with ICJ decisions. This suggests that our obligations under the treaty are to pass subsequent legislation that implements the ICJ ruling domestically. Who’s job is it to pass legislation? Congress…and they did nothing. Congress’s inaction does not diminish international obligations that were in place via the charter (which the Supreme Court acknowledged may still exist), it is just that Congressional action is required in order to create an obligation on the States. It is an 10th Amendment issue and a Supremacy Clause issue. If there is no Federal law in place to preempt the state law, then the state law wins.

    Additionally, The President was deemed unable to direct Texas to comply with the ICJ ruling because such an act is legislative in nature and is beyond the power of the executive. Under other circumstances, if Bush had engaged in a behavior that was the exclusive realm of Congress, you would be throwing a fit, so why not here?

    What the Supreme Court did in this case was put a check on the President’s power to create international obligations unilaterally. This is entirely consistent with the Constitution and a proposition that, under different circumstances, you would probably agree with.

    And know that the ICJ only required that the Texas court only look at whether there Medellin had been prejudiced at all by not being notified of his consular rights. Aside from the fact that his counsel should have been aware of his consular rights and raised the objections in a timely manner (the issue was that they didn’t raise the objection until after trial–the point at which such objections are procedurally waived), his case wasn’t prejudiced. Medellin was NOT denied consular access, he was never notified of his right to consular access by the arresting officers but could have raised this at any time and been granted consular access. Also note that the ICJ was not the one to review Medellin’s case for prejudice, they simply directed the Texas court to do so. The article suggests that the ICJ was to undertake such review.

    For the Supreme Court to have ruled in a manner other than they did would have been inconsistent with the Constitution and inconsistent with their responsibilities as justices. Our obligations under the UN Charter are only such that don’t conflict with the Constitution–and the same can be said about the obligations under the Charter for every other party that is a signatory.

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