US-China Relations And The Execution Of Humberto Leal

This topic is a bit wonky on the legal/political side of things. Sorry about that. It is, however, of some importance, particularly when you think about some recent high profile criminal cases in China involving foreigners.

The big one that comes to my mind is that of Xue Feng, an American geologist jailed for eight years after he was convicted on state secrets violations. I wrote about the case last year. One of the important legal, and diplomatic, issues of the Xue Feng case was whether China was fulfilling its obligations under both international and Chinese law. Several prominent foreign lawyers, including Jerome Cohen, argued, quite persuasively in my mind, that the trial was significantly flawed. Violations included, among other things, provisions of the US-China Consular Agreement.

Which brings us back to . . . Texas. Yes, that’s right. The actions of governor Rick Perry and the state of Texas is forcing me to write this, another one of those “Hypocrisy!” posts.

As usual, please note that I am not comparing China to Texas (that would be fun, though) and am not arguing for moral equivalency with respect to anything. My narrow point is that the US moral position on many bilateral issues would be better served by “practicing what it preaches” as often as possible.

What did Texas do this week? It executed a Mexican national, Humberto Leal, Jr. This happened after both George Bush (when he was president), Barack Obama, the US Justice Department et al challenged the actions of Texas.

What was the problem?

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the United States violated the rights of Leal and more than three dozen other Mexican nationals on death row because law enforcement officials didn’t advise them of their right to have consular access to officials from their home country under international law.

Yeah, that issue of consular access again, one of the problems with that Xue Feng case.

Why is this Texas execution even remotely relevant to US-China relations? Because the Chinese government pays attention to this sort of thing and is quite willing to throw it back at the US government when China’s own policies are criticised.

Whenever the US government lectures China about treatment of minorities (particularly out West), what do we hear from Beijing? US race relations, poverty rates in the African-American and Latino populations, etc.

When we hear US complaints about the Great Firewall and Internet censorship in China, what do we hear from Beijing? US domestic surveillance activities, including illegal wiretaps.

You see the pattern. And the possible effects of the Humberto Leal execution are obvious to anyone, except I suppose for Governor Rick Perry. John Bellinger, lawyer at Arnold & Porter and former State Department lawyer, said it best:

It should be obvious to anyone, including officials in Texas, that if Americans, including Texans, are arrested and detained in some other country and the United States complains that they have not been given their consular notice it will be pointed out to us that the United States doesn’t comply with our own international obligations.

It cuts the legs out from under the State Department — maybe not immediately but over the longer run — to make arguments on behalf of Americans who are detained abroad.

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