Important Supreme Court Decision Rejects UN High Court over US Treaty Obligations
By Piero A. Tozzi
NEW YORK, April 11, 2008 (C-FAM.org) – A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision reaffirmed the right of the United States to govern its affairs in accordance with the US Constitution rather than specific provisions of international treaties. In the process, the Court rejected a directive of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). MedellÃn v. Texas not only reaffirmed principles of sovereignty and self-government, but also undercut arguments of international pro-abortion activists that accession to international treaties requires nations to disregard domestic constitutional protections for the unborn.
In a 6-3 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court rejected the argument that Texas law enforcement officials were required to notify a Mexican murder suspect of his right under international law to contact his country’s consulate following his arrest. An order by the ICJ – the United Nations'”principal judicial organ” headquartered at The Hague, also known as the “World Court”– had directed that the Mexican national was entitled to have his case reviewed by the state court based a provision of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty which the U.S. has ratified.
The Bush Administration had urged compliance with the ICJ decision, arguing that the executive branch had authority to direct a state court to give it effect. Analyzing the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution and case law dating back to the early decades of the Republic, the Supreme Court ruled that the President lacked such authority.
As the treaty provision at issue was not “self-executing”– in other words, it did not become automatically binding upon ratification by Congress – it could not bind states without further Congressional action. The U.S. Constitution requires action by the legislative, not the executive, branch to transform a non-self-executing treaty obligation into domestic law.
The principles underlying the U.S. Supreme Court decision have application beyond the immediate case. In recent years, radical pro-abortion NGOs like the Center for Reproductive Rights have argued that sovereign nations must liberalize abortion laws based on non-binding recommendations of certain UN committees, even though such reinterpretations of treaty obligations are inconsistent with the original language in the treaties. Abortion advocates were successful in convincing the Supreme Court of Colombia in 2006 to overturn Colombia’s pro-life laws based on such arguments. A similar challenge is currently pending in Mexico, where the Mexican Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of a municipal law passed by Mexico City that allows first trimester abortion.
The MedellÃn decision, however, while premised upon the importance of the United States fulfilling its treaty obligations, would not allow outside parties – in this case the ICJ – to dictate how such obligations would be fulfilled. Rather, the outcome was dictated by reference to domestic constitutional principles.
MedellÃn thus marks an additional chapter in the on-going debate over the interrelationship between democratic self-determination and the scope of obligations imposed upon sovereign nations participating in international legal regimes.