If the Obama administration’s Solicitor-General is to be believed then the State of Texas has just caused “irreparable harm” to America’s foreign relations. And if you also heed the warnings of numerous US diplomats and ex-military officials, then it has also jeopardized the safety of countless Americans overseas.
How has it done this? By executing Humbero Leal Garcia, a Mexican national whose case had been ordered reviewed by the International Court of Justice.
Mr. Leal was arrested in 1994 and charged with the rape and murder of a sixteen year-old girl. His defenders have long maintained the case against him was based on early-90s “junk science” that would not withstand up-to-date scrutiny. They also cast aspersions on the competence of his court-appointed lawyers. Their key point however is that at no point during the proceedings was Mr. Leal told it was his right as a Mexican national to approach his country’s consulate for legal aid.
Mr. Leal was born in Mexico, though his parents moved the family to Texas when he was two years old. Since he never took US citizenship and was a Mexican national he should have been informed of his right to consular assistance under the terms of an international treaty the US ratified in 1969.
In 2004 the Mexican government took his case, along with those of fifty Mexican nationals in similar circumstances, to the International Court of Justice. It argued that in all these instances the US had broken the terms of the treaty and each case should be given a judicial review to determine whether consular aid could have quashed the chances of conviction.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations concurred, saying the US was bound under international law to obey the ICJ’s ruling. The state of Texas, however, disagreed. Saying it had never signed any agreements with the international court, it argued its case before the Supreme Court in 2008 and won. However, there was a caveat: the Justices said Texas would have to listen to the ICJ if Congress passed legislation requiring it to do so.
This legislation was only introduced recently, and is still winding its way through the usual legislative byways. The Obama administration appealed to the Supreme Court to ask Texas to delay Mr. Leal’s execution until after that legislation had been given a decent amount of time to pass.
On Thursday, in a 5-4 vote, the court ruled against this. The majority opinion stated, in effect, that Congress had been given enough time to get its act together and that it would be wrong to “prohibit a state from carrying out a lawful judgment in light of unenacted legislation.”
Mr. Leal’s final chance lay in the form of Governor Rick Perry. In recent days he had received high-level petitions to grant a stay of execution. The UN’s top human rights official even requested he commute the sentence to life imprisonment instead.
Gov. Perry, though, chose not to act. This surprised few observers. After all, he had been here once before, facing similar circumstances in the international uproar that surrounded the execution of Jose Ernesto Medellin in 2008.
In both of these cases prominent international figures have argued that showing such disrespect for the consular treaty and the ICJ will endanger Americans abroad. They say it will embolden foreign countries to treat with Americans’ right to consular access with a similar disdain.
Of course, Mr. Leal was not a tourist or the type of foreign national the consular treaty was arguably designed to protect. It remains to be seen whether foreign nations will accept this nicety.