By: Emma Nunn
On November 8, 2017, Ruben Cardenas Ramirez, a Mexican national living the in United States, was executed by lethal injection, despite international pressure from the president of Mexico and the United Nations. Ramirez was convicted in 1998 for the kidnap, rape, and murder of his sixteen-year-old cousin. The international community criticized the execution for violating a ruling of the International Court of Justice. Texas was condemned by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for executing the prisoner without “review and reconsideration.”  Texas argued, however, that based on Medellin v. Texas, a United States Supreme Court Case, the ICJ ruling is not binding on Texas. Although the state of Texas is correct and technically, the US is not bound by the ICJ or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United States should have complied with the spirit and text of the treaties it once supported and advocated and set an example for the rest of the world.
In 1997, Ramirez, a former security guard, was arrested for the murder of his cousin. Mayra Laguna, the victim, was abducted from the bedroom she shared with her sister in her family’s apartment. Her body was later found in a canal near a lake. Ramirez was held for eleven days without access to a lawyer, despite repeated requests. The Mexican consulate claims that it was not informed of his arrest until nearly five months after the fact. A 2004 U.N. World Court ruling mandates that foreign nationals who are not told of their consular right are allowed a review to see if the oversight influenced the outcome of the case. He eventually gave multiple, conflicting confessions, but claimed that they was coerced by the police. He was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.
Ramirez’s lawyers appealed his conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for violations of his due process and civil rights. Specifically, they argued that his rights were being violated because the state wouldn’t allow for new DNA testing. Attorneys from the state of Texas argued that the suit was improper, because Ramirez was unable to show that more advanced DNA testing would exonerate him. The appeal was denied by the Fifth Circuit, and again by the Supreme Court. The execution took place as scheduled on November 8th. The president of Mexico, a nation in which the death penalty is outlawed, publically condemned the execution. Two human rights experts speaking on behalf of the United Nations also denounced the execution.
International Human Rights Law
There are two bodies of international law that Texas can said to be violating in their completion of the execution: a 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN’s International Court of Justice found that Texas was violating Article 36 of the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations by failing to give notice. The article states that “review and reconsideration” are required when individuals arrested abroad are hurt by the failure of local authorities to notify them of their rights under the Vienna Convention to contact local authorities. Texas authorities did not notify Mexico of Ramirez’s arrest until it was too late for his government to aid him, and never informed Ramirez of his rights to contact his consulate.
The International Court of Justice determination that the United States is violating the Vienna Convention is not enforceable in the United States under the Supreme Court case Medellin v. Texas. The case began when, per the ICJ President Bush ordered state court re-hearings for fifty one Mexican nationals currently on death row convicted in United States Courts. The president issued a memorandum that informed Texas courts that, because the Mexican nationals had been denied their right to contact the Mexican consulate for legal assistance, the United States was obligated to grant “review and reconsideration” of their cases. The Supreme Court held that absent a Congressional order requiring states to follow the ICJ’s ruling, it does not supersede federal law. This is because the United States withdrew from the jurisdiction of the ICJ in 1986, following an unfavorable ruling on US mining in Nicaragua’s harbors. Therefore, the decisions of the ICJ are not binding on the United States- however, this does not mean that they should be ignored entirely. If the rest of the world has seen fit to adhere to these decisions, the United States should follow suit as well if it wishes to remain a global champion of human rights.
The United States is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides a range of protections for civil and political rights. This treaty, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, are considered the International Bill of Human Rights. The U.S. ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992. Article 14 states that all people detained for a criminal charge “shall be entitled to . . . have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing.” It additionally states that nobody shall be “compelled to testify himself or to confess guilt,” and that everyone convicted of a criminal offense has a right to have their “conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law.” Article 6 states that “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
However, in signing the ICCPR, the United States reserved several rights pertaining to criminal punishment. Specifically, the United States reserves the right to “impose capital punishment on any person (other than a pregnant woman) duly convicted under existing or future laws.” The United States made no reservations as to the provision of counsel for the accused. While the execution of Mr. Ramirez may have been permissible under the ICCPR, the US clearly violated Article 14 of which treaty by not providing Mr. Ramirez with his counsel after his initial request. It is unclear whether or not his rights under the Vienna Convention are included in the right to counsel guaranteed in the ICCPR, but it is clear that the US violated this agreement when he was not given access to counsel for over a week after his initial detainment.
Why Should the US have stuck to International Norms?
While neither the ICJ ruling or the ICCPR is technically enforceable by a governmental body in the United States, the US should have acted in line with international norms regarding human rights and stayed the execution. In doing so, the US runs the risk that another country will do the same to one of its own citizens in a similar situation. Although the US is no longer subject to the ICJ’s decisions, it should not brush them off entirely- it was once an advocate of the court, and should not ignore future decisions regarding United States conduct simply because it did not like one of its rulings. Additionally, it is dangerous for the US to execute a foreign national in this manner. Ramirez is the 11th Mexican national that the US has executed since 1979. It sends a poor message to the rest of the world that a country such as the US that claims to be a global leader would disregard multiple agreements on human rights. It weakens the United States’ stance against other nations committing violations of human rights- if we cannot even follow the rules we expect other nations to follow, we have little room to criticize them. While the United States did take reservations when signing the treaty, it would have been easy to notify the Mexican Embassy at the time of Ramirez’s arrest. The US also endangers its own citizens in continuing these practices. The Medellin case arose because forty Mexican nationals had faced the same deprivation Mr. Ramirez did. If the United States continues to deprive foreign nationals of their rights, this leaves the door open for other nations to do the same to our own citizens when they are detained abroad. This is not to say that the execution itself was impermissible in any circumstance- however, because the United States did not provide Mr. Ramirez’s case with “review and reconsideration,” they risk watching the same thing happen to our own citizens abroad.
 David Zwier, Texas executes Mexican national despite international pressure, Jurist: Paperchase (Nov. 10, 2017), http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2017/11/texas-executes-mexican-national-despite-international-pressure.php [perma: https://perma.cc/9UF9-SCKN]
 Keri Blakinger, Texas set to execute Mexican national amid international dispute, Houston Chronicle (Oct. 27, 2017, 6:07 PM), http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Texas-set-to-execute-Mexican-national-amid-12302934.php?t=37ffd186bb [perma: https://perma.cc/9P7U-Q6R2]
 Associated Press, The Latest: Lawsuits tossed for man facing Texas execution, Wash. Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-latest-lawsuits-filed-for-man-facing-execution-tonight/2017/11/08/9e49b2ec-c4b1-11e7-9922-4151f5ca6168_story.html?utm_term=.d2b813a802b3 [perma: https://perma.cc/D8WT-3EYV]
 Blackinger, supra note 5.
 Zwier, supra note 1.
 Blakinger, supra note 5
 Associated Press, supra note 6.
 Zwier, supra note 1.
 Associated Press, supra note 6.
 Associated Press, The Latest: Texas executes Mexican citizen for 1997 slaying, ABC News (Nov. 8, 2017), http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/latest-lawsuits-filed-man-facing-execution-tonight-51019009 [perma: https://perma.cc/USD6-FZRG]
 Zwier, supra note 1.
 Office of the High Commissioner, UN experts urge US to halt Texas execution of Mexican Ruben Cardenas Ramirez, United Nations Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22360&LangID=E [perma: https://perma.cc/WLM3-TDMJ]
 Zwier, supra note 1.
 552 U.S. 491 (2008).
 Jeannie Shawl, Supreme Court rules in federal mandated ICJ compliance, arbitration review cases, Jurist: Paperchase (Mar. 25, 2008), http://www.jurist.org/paperchase/2008/03/supreme-court-rules-in-federally.php [perma: https://perma.cc/WP7N-R6TF]
 Laignee Barron, Mexico is Pressing the U.S. to Spare one of Its Citizens Ahead of a Planned Execution, Time (Oct.. 27, 2017), http://time.com/4999848/mexican-citizen-execution-texas/ [perma: https://perma.cc/RR4Q-9FVP]
 Adam Liptak, U.S. Says It Has Withdrawn From World Judicial Body, N.Y. Times (Mar. 10, 2005), http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/10/politics/us-says-it-has-withdrawn-from-world-judicial-body.html?_r=1 [perma: https://perma.cc/AT34-Z6AB]
 ACLU, FAQ: The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/other/faq-covenant-civil-political-rights-iccpr
 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. Resolution, 2200A (XXI), at 14/3(b)(1976).
 Id at 3(g).
 Id. at 5.
 Id. at 6(1).
 Id. at 2.
 Barron, supra note 24.
 Liptak, supra note 25.