Leahy Renews Effort To Bring U.S. Into Compliance With International Consular Notification Treaty

WASHINGTON (Tuesday, June 14, 2011) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation Tuesday to address a long-standing international concern regarding U.S. compliance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR), a key treaty providing access for citizens detained abroad to their consulates.

The Leahy-authored Consular Notification Compliance Act will give jurisdiction to federal courts to review the cases of foreign nationals currently on death row in the United States who did not receive consular access as required by the VCCR. It includes those individuals covered by a 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice, which held that the U.S. must review the convictions and death sentences of more than 50 Mexican nationals who had not been notified of their right to consular access.  The legislation would also clarify for future cases that courts must ensure that all foreign nationals charged with a capital offense are informed of their right to contact their consulate.  More than 100 foreign nationals from more than 30 countries are currently on death row in the United States.

“Each year, thousands of Americans are detained abroad while they study, travel, work, and serve in the military.  From the moment they are detained, their safety and well-being depends on the ability of United States consular officials to meet with them, monitor their treatment, help them obtain legal assistance, and connect them to family back home,” said Leahy.

“That access is protected by the consular notification provisions of the VCCR, but it only functions effectively if every country meets its obligations under the treaty – including the United States.  The Consular Notification Compliance Act will bring the United States one step closer to compliance with the convention.”

Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations.  The need to protect Americans overseas by bringing the U.S. into compliance with the treaty has garnered support from retired members of the military, former diplomats, retired judges and prosecutors.

Government efforts to address this problem began during the George W. Bush administration, when President Bush issued an executive memorandum directing the state courts to provide review of the convictions and death sentences.  The executive order was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Court held that the Executive Branch did not have the authority to compel the state courts to act.  The Court held that Congress must pass legislation instead.

“Compliance with our consular notification obligations is not a question of partisan interest,” Leahy said.  “Given the long history of bipartisan support for the VCCR, there should be unanimous support for this legislation to uphold our treaty obligations.  A failure to act places Americans at risk.”

The VCCR was negotiated during the Kennedy administration, and ratified during the Nixon administration.  The U.S. government has cited the VCCR in seeking access to Americans detained abroad.  According to the Department of State, more than 6600 Americans were arrested abroad in fiscal year 2010.  More than 3000 U.S. citizens were incarcerated abroad in the same time period.

The text of the Consular Notification Compliance Act is available online.

 

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Introduction Of The Consular Notification Compliance Act

June 14, 2011

 

Today, I am introducing the Consular Notification Compliance Act.  This legislation will help bring the United States into compliance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) and is critical to ensuring the protection of Americans traveling overseas.

Each year, thousands of Americans are arrested and imprisoned when they are in foreign countries studying, working, serving the military, or traveling.  From the moment they are detained, their safety and well-being depends, often entirely, on the ability of United States consular officials to meet with them, monitor their treatment, help them obtain legal assistance, and connect them to family back home.  That access is protected by the consular notification provisions of the VCCR, but it only functions effectively if every country meets its obligations under the treaty – including the United States.

Unfortunately, in some instances, the United States has not been meeting those obligations.  There are currently more than 100 foreign nationals on death row in the United States, most of whom were never told of their right to contact their consulate and their consulate was never notified of their arrest, trial, conviction, or sentence.  There are many other foreigners in U.S. prisons awaiting trial for non-capital crimes, some facing life sentences, who were similarly denied consular access.  This failure to comply with our treaty obligations undercuts our ability to protect Americans abroad and deeply damages our image as a country that abides by its promises and the rule of law.  It would also be completely unacceptable to us if our citizens were treated in this manner.

The Consular Notification Compliance Act seeks to bring the United States one step closer to compliance with the convention.  It is not perfect.  It focuses only on the most serious cases – those involving the death penalty – but it is a significant step in the right direction and we need to work together to pass it quickly.  Texas is posed to execute the next foreign national affected by this failure to comply with the treaty on July 7, 2011.  He was not notified of his right to consular assistance, and the Government of Mexico has expressed grave concerns about the case.  We do not want this execution to be interpreted as a sign that the United States does not take its treaty obligations seriously.  That message puts American lives at risk.

The Government of Great Britain has expressed similar concerns about a case involving a British citizen facing the death penalty here, who was denied consular access.

The bill I am introducing would allow foreign nationals who have been convicted and sentenced to death to ask a court to review their cases and determine if the failure to provide consular notification led to an unfair conviction or sentence.

The bill also recognizes that law enforcement and the courts must do a better job in the future to promptly notify individuals of their right to consular assistance so the United States does not find itself in this precarious position again. To that end, the bill reaffirms that the obligations under the treaty are Federal law and apply to all foreign nationals arrested or detained in the United States. For individuals arrested on charges that carry a possible punishment of death, the bill ensures adequate opportunity for consular assistance before a trial begins.

This bill offers very limited remedies to a very limited number of people.  I am troubled that it has to be so narrow, as we demand far broader protection for American citizens abroad every day.  However, carrying out a death sentence is an irreversible action, and I believe that we must act quickly.  I understand that a limited bill has the best chance of achieving the bipartisan support needed to move forward on such an important issue at this time.

Compliance with our consular notification obligations is not a question of partisan interest.  There should be unanimous support for this bill.  The VCCR was negotiated under President Kennedy, ratified during the Nixon administration, and it has been fully supported by every President since.  President George W. Bush understood the critical need to honor our obligations under this treaty.  Although he was ultimately unsuccessful, he vigorously worked to bring the United States into compliance, and he supported action along the lines of what I propose today. He understood the implications of non-compliance for our citizens, our businesses, and our military.   I have no doubt President Obama shares the same commitment to resolving this issue.

I saw the need to resolve this issue first-hand this spring when a young, innocent Vermont college student was detained by Syrian police simply for taking photos of a demonstration.  I worked hard with the U.S. consulate in Syria to obtain access to him.  His safety depended on the ability of our consular officers to see him, provide assistance, and monitor his condition.

Similarly, the United States invoked the VCCR to seek access to the three American hikers detained in Iran after accidently crossing an unmarked boarder in 2009.  In 2001, when a U.S. Navy surveillance plane made an emergency landing in Chinese territory, the State Department cited the VCCR in demanding immediate access to the plane’s crew.

I doubt there are many Members of Congress who have not sought similar help from our consulates when their constituents have been arrested overseas.  We know how critically important this access is, and we expect other governments to provide it.  Those governments expect no less of us.

This bill has the support of the Obama administration, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State.  I have heard from retired members of the military urging passage of the bill to protect servicemen and women and their families overseas, and from former diplomats of both political parties who know that compliance with our treaty obligations is critical for America’s national security and commercial interests.  I ask unanimous consent to include those letters in the Record, as well as a recent public letter signed by retired judges and prosecutors from around the country urging the Governor of Texas to delay the upcoming execution to allow Congress time to act.

Given the long history of bipartisan support for the VCCR, there should be unanimous support for this legislation to uphold our treaty obligations.  A failure to act places Americans at risk.

I ask unanimous consent that that a copy of the bill be printed in the Record.

 

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