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Column 121503 Thompson

Monday, December 15, 2003


Mexico challenges U.S. death sentences in the World Court


By Barnard R. Thompson


The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is scheduled to hear a contentious case filed by Mexico against the U.S.A., challenging the legitimacy of the death penalty in this country, from December 15 to 19.  Judges from the so-called “World Court,” the top-level legal body of the United Nations that is based in The Hague, will hear Mexico’s legal team argue that 54 Mexican citizens who were found culpable and who are now on death row in a number of states were denied their right to pretrial counsel and trial assistance by Mexican consular officials.  As such, the pleadings will call for cancellation of all 54 executions.


In what is viewed as the unacceptable intervention by Mexico in U.S.A. domestic affairs, U.S. government attorneys will argue that over and above the improprieties in Mexico’s petition, the granting of such a request would violate this nation’s sovereignty.


During the recent debate in the Mexican senate with respect to last month’s foreign ministry (SRE) decision to replace a number of diplomats worldwide, some interesting insights into Mexican opinions and plans on the death penalty matter also surfaced.  Per se, opposition party senators mainly based their comments and criticism on the November 7 announced decision to remove Santiago Oñate Laborde as ambassador to the Low Countries.


Silvia Hernández, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who chairs the senate’s North America Foreign Affairs Committee, charged that the arbitrary decision of the SRE to relieve Oñate — an attorney and onetime president of the PRI — of his post at this time weakens Mexico’s chance of winning the case against the U.S.A.  This is a “life and death” matter, and as such all the work that Oñate has done since the case was filed last January — including his positive rapport with ICJ judges, could be damaged or lost the ex-tourism secretary said.


Former foreign minister (1982-88) Bernardo Sepúlveda Amor, one of 34 current members elected by the General Assembly of the UN to serve on its International Law Commission, also criticized Mexico’s decision to remove Oñate.  “There is a very serious concern, (since) Oñate’s role is absolutely central.  Besides being one of the attorneys for the Mexican cause, as ambassador he is the main link between Mexican authorities and the Court.  (His dismissal) could lead to a break in Mexico’s relationship link with the Court at an absolutely crucial moment,” Sepúlveda admonished.  Sepúlveda will also be a member of the Mexican team at the ICJ proceedings.


Barring commutation of sentence by a particular governor in the U.S.A., Mexico sees the ICJ as its only means to spare citizens facing capital punishment the death penalty.  The Mexican Constitution prohibits the imposition of death sentences (excepting in a few exceptional circumstances), plus Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in October of 2001 that life sentences are a violation of the Constitution.


Mexico’s fundamental argument is that the U.S.A. is in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and Optional Protocols.  In part, Article 36.1.b., states: “if he so requests, the competent authorities of the receiving State shall, without delay, inform the consular post of the sending State if, within its consular district, a national of that State is arrested or committed to prison or custody pending trial or is detained in any other manner…”  It would thus seem that all 54 of those now awaiting execution of sentence were not opportunely informed of their rights, and that none “so requested” consular services?


Following the clamor in the senate regarding Oñate and the ICJ hearing, foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez said that every effort possible would be made to defend Mexicans who face capital punishment abroad.  Oñate in turn has been quoted in news reports as saying that, while he may no longer be ambassador to the Low Countries, he will be kept on this particular case until its conclusion.  The ICJ is expected to rule by March 2004.


In addition to repeatedly voicing concern over the negative moves of the SRE and for the lives of the 54 Mexicans sentenced to death, Senator Hernández pointed a critical finger straight at the Fox administration.  “The government has said that its foreign policy priority is the defense of Mexicans abroad, (and) here is its opportunity to show with actions that its policy is efficient and it is committed.  It is clear to us that this means beating the U.S.A. in an international trial.  One must not be afraid of the U.S.A.,” she said.