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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Rethinks Policy on Foreign Detainees

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. administration has decided to pull out of an international agreement that opponents of the death penalty have used to fight the sentences of foreigners on death row in the United States, officials said yesterday.

In a two-paragraph letter dated March 7, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the United States "hereby withdraws" from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The United States proposed the protocol in 1963 and ratified it -- along with the rest of the Vienna Convention -- in 1969.

The protocol requires signatories to let the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, make the final decision when their citizens say they have been illegally denied the right to see a home-country diplomat when jailed abroad.

The United States initially backed the measure as a means to protect its citizens abroad. It was also the first country to invoke the protocol before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, successfully suing Iran for the taking of 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979.

But in recent years, other countries, with the support of U.S. opponents of capital punishment, successfully complained before the ICJ that their citizens were sentenced to death by U.S. states without receiving access to diplomats from their home countries.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments March 28 in the case of a Mexican death row inmate in Texas who is asking the justices to enforce an ICJ decision in favor of Mexico last year. That case has attracted wide attention in Mexico and caused a diplomatic rift between the Bush administration and the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox. Rice is scheduled to meet with Fox today in Mexico in preparation for a summit meeting at President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, later this month.

The administration's decision does not affect the rest of the Vienna Convention, which requires its 166 signatories to inform foreigners of their right to see a home-country diplomat when detained overseas. But it shows that Washington's desire to counteract international pressure on the death penalty now weighs against a long-standing policy of ensuring the United States a forum in which to enforce its citizens' allegations of abuse.

"The International Court of Justice has interpreted the Vienna Consular Convention in ways that we had not anticipated that involved state criminal prosecutions and the death penalty, effectively asking the court to supervise our domestic criminal system," State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said Wednesday.

The administration's action comes after its Feb. 28 decision to grant 51 Mexicans on death row in Texas and elsewhere new state court hearings, as the ICJ had ordered.