Protecting Americans Abroad, And Human Rights

August 1, 2011

If you were detained abroad, would you want to be guaranteed access to help from your Embassy?  Of course you would.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from officials at the Department of Justice, the State Department, prominent constitutional lawyers, and Clare Gillis, a journalist who spent 44 fearful days detained in Libya, in support of the Consular Notification Compliance Act, legislation introduced earlier this summer by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

This bill enlists state law enforcement officials and federal courts to comply with a 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling, known as the Avena decision, which ordered the U.S. to remedy its failure to inform 51 foreign national death row prisoners of their right to access their consulate “without delay”.  This right is specified by the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations (VCCR), which became U.S. law in 1969. One of the 51 men, Humberto Leal, was recently executed by Texas as Leahy presented his legislation.

Many of the hearing witnesses cited the fact, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, that both the VCCR and ICJ judgments are international law obligations.  They argued that U.S. non-compliance with VCCR obligations puts Americans abroad at risk for similar infringements of their rights. And there are thousands of U.S. military personnel and Americans visiting or working abroad who, like Ms. Gillis, find themselves dependent on other nations’ reciprocal commitment to the treaty.

The U.S. professes to be the standard-bearer of human rights (though its recent record indicates otherwise).  Passing Senator Leahy’s bill and affirming a human rights commitment that actually protects U.S. citizens abroad ought to be a no-brainer.