In 2009, while on assignment for Current TV, my colleague Laura Ling and I were arrested by North Korean soldiers for crossing the frozen Tumen River, which separates the Republic of China and North Korea. We were imprisoned and isolated from one another for 41 / 2 months. We were repeatedly interrogated, eventually put on trial and sentenced to 12 years’ hard labor. It was only through the extraordinary efforts of the State Department and former president Bill Clinton that we were pardoned and allowed to return home.
It is difficult to describe the fear that comes with being arrested and detained in a foreign country. The sense of darkness in that first week of North Korean captivity was unbearable. My biggest fear was nobody knowing where I was or what had happened to me. The strained relations between the United States and North Korea only increased my despair.
In the middle of the second week, though, I was handed a lifeline: a meeting with the Swedish ambassador, who represented U.S. interests and pointed out to North Korea its responsibilities under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. His hard work yielded a meeting no longer than 10 minutes, but the significance is hard to express. I can only mention the sense of security I now had — that someone outside of North Korea was monitoring my case. The prompt consular access, I believe, protected me from any physical mistreatment by my captors. I was allowed to meet with the ambassador three more times. The meetings were my only communication with the U.S. government — the only way for me to ask for help and to deliver messages to my family. I know the importance of what the Vienna Convention provides.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to ensure judicial review of death penalty cases involving foreign nationals who were not given consular access under the Vienna Convention. This legislation is not only a matter of honoring our obligations to such inmates. There are still many American journalists, aid workers, missionaries, members of the military and tourists detained in foreign countries. For all of them, and for their fearful families at home, there is nothing more important than upholding the reciprocal right to consular protection. With this legislation, Congress can protect that right.
The United States failed to abide by the Vienna Convention in the case of Humberto Leal Jr., a Mexican national who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on July 7. While I am not questioning the verdict of the jury that convicted him of murder, our obligations under the Vienna Convention are clear in all cases, including Leal’s. Indeed, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the judicial arm of the United Nations, held that foreign nationals such as Leal have a right to a hearing to determine if they were harmed by not being told of their consular rights. Former president George W. Bush, all nine U.S. Supreme Court justices and the Obama administration agree that the United States is obligated to comply with the ICJ’s decision.
Then why doesn’t it? The United States has always been in the forefront of the fight for human rights. People look to us to be a watchdog for human rights violations around the globe. We ask the world to treat our citizens with respect when they are detained in other countries, including honoring their right to consular access. It is a two-way street. The United States must lead by example in honoring consular treaty obligations and in providing a remedy when that right is violated. If Congress does not act swiftly, other countries will be encouraged to violate the consular rights of U.S. citizens traveling abroad. I know firsthand that this is a risk we cannot take.
Euna Lee is a journalist and the author of “The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea.”