UPDATE: Researching the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations Notification Requirements

By Cindy G. Buys

Cindy G. Buys is a Professor and Director of International Law Programs at Southern Illinois University School of Law. She holds an LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center, a Juris Doctorate and a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the State University of New York at Albany.

Published January/February 2023

(Previously updated by Barbara H. Bean in June/July 2007; and by Cindy G. Buys in October 2015 and in July/August 2018)

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Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR), to which 182 States are party (including the United States), requires a State arresting or detaining a foreign national to afford the detainee access to his or her consulate and to notify the foreign national of the right of consular access. In several U.S. cases involving foreign nationals, defendants have asserted that the arresting or detaining authorities have failed to make the necessary notifications. Many of these cases have involved the death penalty. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has underscored the difficulty of this issue, especially for a federalist State like the United States. The federal government negotiates and accepts treaties obligations on behalf of the United States, while arrests and prosecutions often are made at the state or local level. Although the principle of U.S. compliance with the treaty obligations is accepted, compliance has been inconsistent, and there has been no meaningful penalty for non-compliance with consular notice obligations.

Between 1998 and 2004, Paraguay, Germany, and Mexico brought challenges against the United States at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the United States’ failure to ensure consular notification rights. In the most recent case of Avena involving 52 Mexicans who had been convicted of capital crimes in the United States, the ICJ ruled against the United States and requested it to review and reconsider the convictions and sentences of the foreign defendants, all of whom had not received their consular notification rights. Following the ICJ ruling, then U.S. President Bush attempted to implement the ICJ decision, but was prevented from doing so by the U.S. Supreme Court which held the President did not have the unilateral authority to implement an ICJ judgment in a case named Medellín v. Texas, after one of the defendants. At the same time, the Bush Administration withdrew from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations thereby depriving the ICJ of jurisdiction over the United States in future cases involving the VCCR.

As of this 2022 update, there remain several outstanding legal issues relating to consular notification rights in the United States. While the VCCR Article 36 requires that both consular notification and access be given “without delay”, different legal authorities have reached different conclusions as to the meaning of that phrase. In addition, U.S. legal authorities have split regarding whether consular notification rights are individually enforceable in U.S. courts and the U.S. Supreme Court has not definitively ruled on whether Article 36 is a self-executing treaty provision. Additionally, there is no agreed upon remedy for a violation of consular notification rights.

This guide describes sources required to research the issue of compliance with the VCCR consular notification obligations with a focus on the United States, whether the need is of a practical or scholarly nature. Some foreign and international sources are also included for reference and comparison.

Treaty Sources


Subscription Databases

Ratification Information

United States Department of State Office of Treaty Affairs – Treaties in Force (2020)

Preparatory Works/Legislative History

United Nations

United States

U.S. State Department Resources

President’s Memorandum Directing Compliance with ICJ Decisions

U.S. Withdrawal from Optional Protocol/ICJ Jurisdiction

Selected Cases from the United States

The most important United States Supreme Court case to date regarding consular notification as required by VCCR Article 36 is Medellín v. Texas. See 552 U.S. 491 (2008). Jose Ernesto Medellín was a Mexican national who the ICJ (in Case Concerning Avena and 51 Other Mexican Nationals (Mex. v. U.S.), 2004 I.C.J. 12) determined was entitled to U.S. state court review of his murder conviction and death penalty sentence. On February 28, 2005, President George W. Bush issued a Memorandum establishing that state courts within the United States must follow and give effect to Avena. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on Medellín’s second habeas corpus petition, which he filed after President Bush’s Memorandum. The Court determined that the Avena judgment did not establish self-executing and binding domestic law applicable to the states in the absence of federal legislation, which did not exist (and still does not to this day). Only through such Congressional action could Avena become the supreme law of the land, trumping state limitations on habeas petitions. The Court further held that the states were not beholden to President Bush’s Memorandum, since the President had no power stemming from the Constitution or from Congress to bind the states in such a way. Medellín was thereby denied habeas corpus and executed in 2008.

Additional United States Supreme Court Cases and Resources

U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals Cases

Notable U.S. State Court Cases

U.S. Federal Regulations on Consular Notification in Federal Arrests

U.S. State Statutes That Address Consular Notification in Case of Arrest or Detention of a Foreign National

International Materials

International Court of Justice

(List of All Cases)

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Selected Cases from Foreign Nations

Further International Research

Secondary Sources

Selected Research Guides

American Law Reports / Encyclopedia Entries

American Society of International Law (ASIL) Insights (Subscription Only)


Selected Law Review Articles