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Human Rights on Hold

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By JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Douglas Cantwell, Victoria Gilcrease-Garcia, Ami Shah and Caroline Stover

Last week should have marked an important milestone for U.S. engagement with the international community on human rights. The United States was scheduled to appear before the United Nations Human Rights Committee as part of a compliance review mandated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a human rights treaty ratified under President George H.W. Bush in 1992. But, at the eleventh hour, the U.S. postponed the review, marking it as yet another casualty of the government shutdown.

The periodic review process is the backbone of accountability under the ICCPR, and a core commitment of the 167 countries that have ratified the treaty. The ICCPR itself protects universal human rights including the right to life, to a fair trial, and to equality before the law. It also guarantees core individual rights such as freedom of expression, religion, and assembly.

The U.S. review, conducted by a committee of experts, is informed by a report prepared by the U.S. government. Civil and human rights organizations also play a key role, contributing data and analysis to supplement the government's perspective and present a more complete picture of human rights on-the-ground. Ultimately, the review aims to uncover gaps in human rights protections and offer a roadmap for improvement.

The ICCPR review is one of the rare opportunities where the U.S. discusses its human rights record and can be held accountable for its international commitments. Postponing the review has negative repercussions both domestically and internationally.

First, it highlights a long existing tension between U.S. human rights ideals and our practices. While the U.S. has been a global leader in the arena of human rights, playing a crucial role in establishing the international human rights system and shaping key documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have an inconsistent record of realizing these rights at home.

U.S. absence from the review delays an essential first step in addressing pressing human rights concerns, including immigration reform, solitary confinement, domestic violence and voting rights. While the review itself is not a panacea, it is a pre-requisite for domestic accountability and making progress on our own human rights record.

Postponement of the review also poses significant implications for international protection of human rights. For one, it sets a potentially dangerous precedent for other countries. U.S. postponement signals that government indecision and infighting are valid reasons for a country to put human rights accountability on hold. If the U.S. shirks its own commitments, our voice will increasingly ring hollow when we seek to hold others to account. We also open the door for other countries to opt out. When the richest country in the world -- which claims to lead by example -- postpones its review due to political gridlock, what message do we send to other countries?

Finally, U.S. postponement impacts our diplomatic engagement abroad. The review would have covered a number of U.S. policies currently at the center of international debate -- NSA surveillance, use of the death penalty, and conditions of detention in Guantanamo - to name a few. The review offered a missed opportunity to speak to these issues on the world stage and address criticisms head on.

The federal government is now back to work. This means the U.S. has the chance to embrace the role of a global human rights leader during the rescheduled review, slated for March 2014. The U.S. should take full advantage of this opportunity by re-committing to human rights and taking concrete action to strengthen human rights protections. Human rights should no longer be put on hold -- they should be the fundamental principles upon which our policies are based.

Unfortunately, the path forward is not so clear. Even though the shutdown is officially over, it continues to stymie critical conversations on human rights -- conversations taking place in Washington, D.C. On Friday, the U.S. sent a formal request to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requesting that hearings involving the United States be postponed until 2014. The request was not granted and the Commission's upcoming session will proceed as planned. U.S. organizations will appear to discuss issues that include indefinite detention and U.S. surveillance practices. Governments from across the Americas will appear before the Commission too. The U.S. should be front and center in these conversations. Instead, it is likely that the government will continue to be seated on the sidelines, signaling that human rights remain on hold.

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JoAnn Kamuf Ward is the Associate Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute and Acting Co-Director of the Law School's Human Rights Clinic. Douglas Cantwell, Victoria Gilcrease-Garcia, Ami Shah and Caroline Stover are students in the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School.