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16 October 2013
US Government Shutdown Prevents UN Human Rights Review

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The US Federal Government is now in its 16th day of a partial shutdown. If no agreement is reached by tomorrow, October 17, the US Government will reach its authorized spending limit and will begin defaulting on its debts and obligations for the first time in history.

In the midst of this economic crisis, news outlets blast away 24/7 about US political gridlock, unemployment numbers, lost billions in GDP, and the destabilizing risk of a US default on the world economy. And rightly so - this political cliffhanger has the potential to wreak havoc on a global scale. But as often occurs during crises, other important issues are overlooked.

Even essential issues are pushed to the side or ignored, deemed "less than" more apparently immediate concerns. Human rights and the protection and enforcement thereof are often subject to such judgment, fading behind the cacophony of panic in the midst of a financial, political, or national security meltdown.

This time is no different.

Because of the US Government shutdown, this week's review of America's human rights record in front of the United Nations Human Rights Committee was cancelled on request and postponed until March, 2014 at the earliest.

(The hearing was part of a periodic inquiry, required under law by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty recognizing the "inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." The US Congress ratified the treaty in 1992.)

Major hot-button issues were slated for discussion, including NSA surveillance programs, drone strikes, healthcare, immigration reform, racial profiling, capital punishment, gun violence, voting rights, and torture. Many NGOs had already delivered commentary, advice, and witness materials for consideration including the ACLU and Amnesty International.

The State Department prepared written testimony in advance, but it would not be enough to simply submit testimony and wait for the Committee's takeaway report listing recommendations and areas for improvement.

America's full participation in the process of the UN Human Rights Committee is more than one of record; it is one of responsibility and leadership. Neither the hearing's discourse nor the written report is legally binding. Instead, they act as catalysts for an even larger and arguably more important public and policy discussion on human rights issues far beyond the hearing itself.

The shutdown is delaying that discussion and the economic fallout of America's political brinkmanship could set the world economy back decades, in the process stalling - or reversing - hard-earned gains in international development and towards the Millennium Development Goals.

The 21st century has already borne witness to the absurdity of human rights abuses the world over, from genocide in Darfur, to the ongoing Syrian conflict, to violence against women everywhere. Every country faces human rights challenges at some level and the United States of America is no exception. Especially amidst economic uncertainty, often itself a trigger for human rights abuses, human rights discussions should not be put off.

Transparency and dialogue are the starting point to resolving human rights challenges. Some countries, such as China and Cuba, have yet to ratify the ICCPR, and others, like Burma (Myanmar), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore, have neither signed nor ratified it. Even countries that have ratified the treaty need encouragement to continue engagement.

So who will lead through continued engagement? America clearly cannot while it is shackled under the weight of its own political discord and gridlock.

It is witheringly unimpressive that the Government of the United States of America, the world's only hyperpower, is closed. It is embarrassing that the US cannot address the UN Human Rights Committee because its Congress is over two-weeks late approving funding and over three years late passing an annual budget.

So enough dithering. Enough bickering. Enough procrastinating. It is beyond time for the US Congress to take responsibility and pass a budget, open the government, and fulfill America's obligations - which includes appearing before the UN Human Rights Committee and engaging the world community on issues essential to every one of us.

Now is the time to lead by example.

The world is watching.

By Kevin Soubly, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Member

Disclaimer: UNA-NCA welcomes articles addressing issues of importance to the United Nations. The opinions presented are those of the author and do not reflect a formal position of  UNA-NCA.