The United States must temporarily stay the execution of three Mexican citizens on U.S. death row, the World Court ruled Wednesday.
In a unanimous decision, the 15-judge panel said that the delay was needed while the U.N. court investigates whether the men — and 48 other Mexicans on U.S. death row — were given their right to legal help from the Mexican government.
The World Court, officially known as the International Court of Justice, is the U.N.'s court for resolving disputes between nations. It has no power to enforce its decisions, and the United States has disregarded them in the past.
Reading Wednesday's ruling, Presiding Judge Gilbert Guillaume said the court supported Mexico's argument that executing the men would cause "irreparable" damage to their rights if the court later finds in Mexico's favor.
"The United States shall take all measures necessary to ensure that (the men) are not executed pending final judgment in these proceedings," he said.
The men whose executions have temporarily been barred are Cesar Fierro, Roberto Ramos and Osvaldo Torres Aguilera, all of whom had exhausted their appeals and whose execution date was soon to have been scheduled.
Mexico filed its suit against the United States last month, asking the court to stay the execution of all 51 Mexicans on death row, but it found the United States must stay death sentences in just the three most urgent cases for now.
The United States had argued that Mexico's initial request amounted to "a sweeping prohibition of capital punishment of Mexican nationals in the United States regardless of U.S. law" and would infringe on both U.S. national sovereignty and states' rights.
The court has yet to set a date for when it will hear oral arguments in the case and consider whether them prisoners' rights were indeed violated under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Rights.
Elihu Lauterpacht, a lawyer for the United States, has labeled the Mexican case a publicity stunt, and said that staying executions in state prisons might be unenforceable for the U.S. federal government.
The Mexicans on death row in the United States are imprisoned in California, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Oregon.
The decision follows a high-profile case in which the World Court ruled that the United States had violated international law by not informing a German citizen of his right to consular assistance in 1999.
Walter LaGrand was executed in Arizona despite the World Court's 1999 order to postpone his punishment until it had heard Germany's case. He had been convicted along with his brother Karl LaGrand for murdering a bank manager during a 1982 robbery.
In 1999, the court criticized the U.S. government, saying it had an obligation to enforce the ruling, which is said was not a "mere exhortation, but created a legal obligation."
In Wednesday's decision, the court ordered the United States to "inform the court of all measures taken in implementation of this order."
The death penalty has long been a source of tension between the United States and countries that oppose capital punishment. Mexico's case is the third the United States has faced in five years.
At least 97 foreigners currently await execution in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 1976, at least 15 have been executed; three were freed after appeals or retrials and eight had their death sentences overturned on appeal, according to Amnesty International.