THE HAGUE - The World Court ordered the United States on Wednesday to do all it could to halt the imminent executions of five Mexicans until the court makes a final judgment in a dispute over suspects' rights.
The row, which has strained relations between the neighbours, centres on the fact that the United States failed to inform 51 of its citizens sentenced to die in U.S. jails of their right to consular assistance.
One of the five Mexicans on death row, Jose Medellin, is due to die on Aug. 5 in Texas.
In 2004 the World Court, or International Court of Justice (ICJ), ruled in favour of Mexico, finding the United States had violated international law. It ordered the United States to review the 51 cases to see whether the lack of consular assistance had prejudiced the outcome of their trials.
A year later, U.S. President George W. Bush ordered Texas to review Medellin's case but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March that Bush had no authority to do so, leading Texas to schedule Medellin's execution for August.
"The court indicates that the United States of America shall take all measures necessary to ensure that five Mexican nationals are not executed pending its final judgment," Judge Rosalyn Higgins said.
Mexico, which had asked the court for an interpretation of its 2004 ruling, given U.S. assertions that its federal states have a large degree of legal autonomy and it cannot compel them to review the cases, welcomed Wednesday's ruling.
"(We) hope the provisional measures will be duly observed, taking into account their legally binding nature," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Representing Mexico at the court, the United Nations' highest legal body, Jorge Lomonaco Tonda said: "The Mexican government is satisfied with the ruling of the court ... we have full confidence that the ruling will be applied."
A gang member, Medellin was denied the right to meet a consular official from Mexico after his arrest for the June 1993 rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston. The killings were linked to a gang initiation.
Under the Vienna Convention, foreign nationals have a right to talk to consular officers after their arrests.
John Bellinger, a legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. government had acknowledged it was obliged to review the cases and was talking to the state of Texas to try to get it to comply with the ICJ ruling.
But he added: "This court's orders do not have direct technical effect in the United States."
If Texas executed Medellin it would violate the international legal obligations of the United States yet still be legal under Texan state laws, he said.
Texas has said Medellin was never told he could talk to Mexican officials. But it has added that the claim cannot be made now because he never raised it at trial or sentencing.
Even if his treaty rights had been violated, it would not have made any difference in the outcome of the case, Texas said.
Thirty-eight U.S. states still have the death penalty, of which Texas has carried out the most executions.
Last year 42 people were put to death in the United States, but the number was artificially low because of a de facto moratorium issued by the Supreme Court, while it examined arguments that the cocktail of three drugs used in most U.S. executions inflicted unnecessary pain.
The ICJ is responsible for handling disputes between U.N. member states. Its rulings -- which often take years -- are binding and not subject to appeal.