April 17, 1998 -- My reputation as a sarcastic bastard notwithstanding, I know of no way to be flip when we're talking about the execution of a man convicted of murdering a woman during a sexual assault. I also can't think of anything hilarious to write when his execution means all American business travelers are suddenly at risk when they travel overseas.
All I can say is this: Man, I am scared. I don't know if I'll ever again travel internationally with any sense of equanimity. And I don't know if any American business traveler will ever feel truly safe overseas again.
Worst of all, you may not even know what I'm talking about because the execution of a human being is no longer front-page news in this country. Inevitable as they both may be, death and taxes do not generate equal media "play" these days.
My comrades in the general-interest press spared no expense to cover this year's annual April 15 income-tax follies. Yippee, I'm thinking, another interview with another fool racing down the block to post a tax return at 11:59:59 p.m. just as the post-office doors slam shut!. Yet America's media seemed disinterested in the April 14 execution of a 32-year-old Paraguayan man and how his case affects the rights of business travelers around the world.
What happened late in the evening on April 14 is this: Over the objections of the government of Paraguay, despite a personal plea by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and in total disregard of the opinion of the World Court in Hague, the State of Virginia executed Angel Francisco Breard for his 1992 murder of 39-year-old Ruth Dickie.
Why did Paraguay, Albright and the World Court all want Breard's execution delayed? A little matter of the usually inviolate Vienna Convention.
At the time of his arrest, Breard, a citizen of Paraguay, was not informed of his right to contact and consult with the Embassy of Paraguay. That is a clear and unequivocal violation of the Vienna Convention, which asserts that all foreign nationals have the right to talk to their embassy if they are accused of a crime.
The fact that Breard's right to embassy consultation was violated is not even in question. Breard's prosecutors and Virginia Governor James S. Gilmore III admit that Breard was not accorded his rights under the Vienna Convention, which the United States ratified in 1969.
Now in the day-to-day world of business travel, the Vienna Convention is not a hot topic of conversation. But the existence of the Convention, and the fact that the United States supports the treaty, is why people like you and I feel comfortable strolling down the Via Cavour in Rome, meandering along Tverskaya in Moscow or working on Main streets from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast to the Zona Rosa in Mexico City.
We're Americans, god dammit, and, if we're accused of some crime in Spain or Sardinia or South Korea, we damn well are going to assert our privilege to call over to the U.S. Embassy and get help. It's our right under the Vienna Convention. And woe to the country that tells us we can't call our embassy if we're in trouble!
But Virginia didn't give Breard his right to call and consult the Paraguayan Embassy. And in rushing him from arrest to the gallows in a breathtakingly short six years--most death-penalty cases take twice that long to litigate--Virginia thinks a "sorry for the inconvenience" will cover it.
That's no joke. Virginia's official position, asserted when sued by Paraguay, petitioned by Albright and called to task by the World Court, is to suggest that an apology for the violation of the Vienna Convention is sufficient.
Well, it ain't.
In Breard's particular case, his lawyers believe the timely intervention of the Paraguayan Embassy might have convinced Breard to accept a plea bargain and a sentence of life imprisonment. Virginia prosecutors offered such terms, yet Breard refused to accept them even though he confessed to the murder.
For the rest of us, the issue of the Vienna Convention is similarly a matter of life and death. How'd you like to be swept up by local authorities and, unsure of the law and the language, be denied your right to consult the U.S. Embassy? Why should any other country--especially those nations whose commitment to equal rights under the law is tenuous--abide by the letter and the spirit of the Vienna Convention when the State of Virginia feels free to disregard it?
Virginia's decision to rush Breard to execution--and the U.S. Supreme Court's eleventh-hour decision not to interfere--"will send a message about our respect for international bodies," says Yale University law professor Harold Hongju Koh.
Koh, part of a group of international law professors who asked the Supreme Court to intervene in the Breard case and stay his execution, thinks he knows what Virginia's actions mean for the Vienna Convention.
"What goes around comes around," he concludes.
And if that's too legalistic an assessment for you, try mine: Be afraid. Be very afraid.This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.