Mexico made an emergency appeal to the U.N.'s highest court Thursday to block the execution of its citizens on death row in the United States.
Lawyers for the U.S. cautioned, however, that the court's interference could complicate Washington's efforts to save the lives of Mexican convicts condemned to death by state courts.
Mexico contends the United States is defying a 2004 order by the International Court of Justice to review the cases of 51 condemned Mexican prisoners.
That ruling said the inmates had been denied the right to help from their consulate after their arrests. It said the death row prisoners were entitled to a reconsideration of their trials and sentences to determine whether the violation affected their cases.
Informally known as the World Court, the tribunal is the U.N.'s judicial arm for resolving disputes among nations. Its decisions are binding and final, but it has no enforcement powers.
Mexico's chief advocate Juan Manuel Gomez-Robledo told the court the cases had not been systematically reviewed, and the U.S. was "in breach of its international obligations."
Gomez-Robledo said that without urgent action now, five Mexican nationals "will be executed before the conclusion of these proceedings."
John Bellinger III, the U.S. legal adviser, said federal government had gone to "extraordinary lengths" to carry out the World Court's directive and to intercede with the state courts.
Texas refused Bush directive
After the World Court's ruling, President Bush issued a directive to the state courts to abide by the decision. He also asked Texas specifically to review the case of Jose Medellin, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection Aug. 5.
Those steps were "highly unusual," Bellinger said. "It almost never happens that the federal government enters an appearance in state court proceedings."
Texas refused, and in March the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 vote that Bush lacked the authority to compel state courts to comply with the judgment from The Hague.
Mexico filed to the court again two weeks ago.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General Michael Mukasey jointly wrote to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, urging him to review Medellin's case, Bellinger said.
But Rice and Mukasey could do nothing more than "respectfully request" Texas' help to carry out the nation's international legal obligations, said Bellinger.
"Persuasion may bring about what compulsion can not," he said. "Any decision by this court will confront these same limits of US domestic law. A new decision would add nothing to the original decision."
More arguments were scheduled for Friday. It was unclear when the judges would issue a ruling.
Must states abide by international law?
Mexico argued that international law applies not only to the United States but also to individual states.
"The United States cannot invoke municipal law as justification for failure to perform its international legal obligations," it said in its application to the court two weeks ago.
Mexico asked the World Court for an "interpretation" of its earlier ruling to clarify what it meant when it asked the U.S. to "review and reconsider" the cases of the condemned prisoners.
In the meantime, it must order the U.S. to halt the execution timetable, Mexico said.
The U.S. advocates said the World Court had no jurisdiction, since it agreed with Mexico that the court's earlier ruling had not been implemented despite its best efforts. No dispute exists for the World Court to resolve, they argued.
Sandra Babcock, representing Mexico, said that since the court's decision four years ago, 33 Mexicans had sought reviews of their cases in state courts.
Only one request was granted, Babcock said. A second inmate accepted a commutation to life imprisonment in exchange for waiving his claim for a review.
"All other efforts to enforce the judgment have failed," she said.
Mexico listed five of its citizens slated for imminent execution, all in Texas. Medellin, 33, was sentenced to death in the gang rape and murder of two teenage girls 15 years ago.
The Mexican case was the third time the U.S. death penalty has come before the World Court.
In 1999, German national Walter LaGrand, convicted of murdering a bank manager during a botched robbery, was executed in Arizona just hours after the tribunal in The Hague urged the U.S. to halt the proceeding. Two years later, the court said its injunction in the LaGrand case had been a legal obligation, and the U.S. had violated international law by ignoring it.
In its first case in 1998, the U.S. declined to stop the execution of a Paraguayan citizen in Virginia.