LaGrand (Germany v. United States of America)
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Overview of the case
On 2 March 1999, the Federal Republic of Germany filed in the Registry of the Court an Application instituting proceedings against the United States of America in a dispute concerning alleged violations of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 24 April 1963. Germany stated that, in 1982, the authorities of the State of Arizona had detained two German nationals, Karl and Walter LaGrand, who were tried and sentenced to death without having been informed of their rights, as is required under Article 36, paragraph 1 (b), of the Vienna Convention. Germany also alleged that the failure to provide the required notification precluded Germany from protecting its nationals’ interest provided for by Articles 5 and 36 of the Vienna Convention at both the trial and the appeal level in the United States courts. Germany asserted that although the two nationals, finally with the assistance of German consular officers, did claim violations of the Vienna Convention before the federal courts, the latter, applying the municipal law doctrine of “procedural default”, decided that, because the individuals in question had not asserted their rights in the previous legal proceedings at State level, they could not assert them in the federal proceedings. In its Application, Germany based the jurisdiction of the Court on Article 36, paragraph 1, of the Statute of the Court and on Article I of the Optional Protocol of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Germany accompanied its Application by an urgent request for the indication of provisional measures, requesting the Court to indicate that the United States should take “all measures at its disposal to ensure that [one of its nationals, whose date of execution had been fixed at 3 March 1999] [was] not executed pending final judgment in the case . . .”. On 3 March 1999, the Court delivered an Order for the indication of provisional measures calling upon the United States of America, among other things, to “take all measures at its disposal to ensure that [the German national] [was] not executed pending the final decision in [the] proceedings”. However, the two German nationals were executed by the United States.
Public hearings in the case were held from 13 to 17 November 2000. In its Judgment of 27 June 2001, the Court began by outlining the history of the dispute and then examined certain objections of the United States of America to the Court’s jurisdiction and to the admissibility of Germany’s submissions. It found that it had jurisdiction to deal with all Germany’s submissions and that they were admissible.
Ruling on the merits of the case, the Court observed that the United States did not deny that, in relation to Germany, it had violated Article 36, paragraph 1 (b), of the Vienna Convention, which required the competent authorities of the United States to inform the LaGrands of their right to have the Consulate of Germany notified of their arrest. It added that, in the case concerned, that breach had led to the violation of paragraph 1 (a) and paragraph 1 (c) of that Article, which dealt respectively with mutual rights of communication and access of consular officers and their nationals, and the right of consular officers to visit their nationals in prison and to arrange for their legal representation. The Court further stated that the United States had not only breached its obligations to Germany as a State party to the Convention, but also that there had been a violation of the individual rights of the LaGrands under Article 36, paragraph 1, which rights could be relied on before the Court by their national State.
The Court then turned to Germany’s submission that the United States, by applying rules of its domestic law, in particular the doctrine of “procedural default”, had violated Article 36, paragraph 2, of the Convention. That provision required the United States to “enable full effect to be given to the purposes for which the rights accorded [under Article 36] [were] intended”. The Court stated that, in itself, the procedural default rule did not violate Article 36. The problem arose, according to the Court, when the rule in question did not allow the detained individual to challenge a conviction and sentence by invoking the failure of the competent national authorities to comply with their obligations under Article 36, paragraph 1. The Court concluded that, in the present case, the procedural default rule had the effect of preventing Germany from assisting the LaGrands in a timely fashion as provided for by the Convention. Under those circumstances, the Court held that in the present case the rule referred to violated Article 36, paragraph 2.
With regard to the alleged violation by the United States of the Court’s Order of 3 March 1999 indicating provisional measures, the Court pointed out that it was the first time it had been called upon to determine the legal effects of such orders made under Article 41 of its Statute — the interpretation of which had been the subject of extensive controversy in the literature. After interpreting Article 41, the Court found that such orders did have binding effect. In the present case, the Court concluded that its Order of 3 March 1999 “was not a mere exhortation” but “created a legal obligation for the United States”. The Court then went on to consider the measures taken by the United States to implement the Order concerned and concluded that it had not complied with it.
With respect to Germany’s request seeking an assurance that the United States would not repeat its unlawful acts, the Court took note of the fact that the latter had repeatedly stated in all phases of those proceedings that it was implementing a vast and detailed programme in order to ensure compliance, by its competent authorities, with Article 36 of the Convention and concluded that such a commitment must be regarded as meeting the request made by Germany. Nevertheless, the Court added that if the United States, notwithstanding that commitment, were to fail again in its obligation of consular notification to the detriment of German nationals, an apology would not suffice in cases where the individuals concerned had been subjected to prolonged detention or convicted and sentenced to severe penalties. In the case of such a conviction and sentence, it would be incumbent upon the United States, by whatever means it chose, to allow the review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence taking account of the violation of the rights set forth in the Convention.
This overview is provided for information only and in no way involves the responsibility of the Court.