Human rights and poverty expert Philip Alston walks a fine line

Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Photo by: Cia Pak / U.N.

NEW YORK — Philip Alston walks a curious, often misunderstood, line in his work investigating some of the toughest human rights and extreme poverty situations across the world. As United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, he conducts country visits and issues reports with the technical support of the U.N, but his work is entirely independent — and sometimes quite critical — of the organization.

Alston has held the unique, unpaid role since he was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2014, all while continuing to work a demanding day job as a New York University law professor and co-chair of the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. It’s a tough job, but one he has described, with a smile, as a “privilege.”

“My work is not reviewed before it is published. It is widely misunderstood, and the vast majority of headlines refer to ‘U.N. envoy,’ ‘senior U.N. official,’ something like that, which are inaccurate,” he told Devex. “The trouble is, it is difficult to capture the actual status, because it is done under U.N. auspices, and it is difficult to explain to people that don’t know the system well that even though I am doing this and it is paid for by the U.N., they provide me with facilities and so on, I am nonetheless not a U.N. official.”

In the last four years, Alston has issued reports on human rights and poverty in more than 20 countries, from Bangladesh and Zambia to China, and most recently, the United States. Some of the work, extending also into thematic issues, has led to groundbreaking U.N. policy reversals.

In a recent interview with Devex, Alston, now on sabbatical while planning another country trip to Ghana this spring, addressed his job’s challenges and practical workings, a complicated connection with the U.N., and some concerning human rights trends.

Taking the uncommon step of reporting on the U.S.

It is rare, but not unheard of, for experts tasked by the U.N. or other bodies like the Human Rights Council to visit the United States.

Alston’s unexpected emergence as a human rights expert querying the U.S., itself historically considered a leader on human rights, prompted considerable interest throughout the duration of his winter tour across the U.S.

UN's Alston tailors language to talk about development in the US

In a cross-nation tour, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights evaluated the United States government responses to poverty and inequality. The country mission was one of many, but Alston found some U.S.-specific terminology and approaches were needed to make the visit successful.

Alston spoke three months after concluding his two-week, cross-country reporting trip from San Francisco, California, to Washington, D.C. One in 8 Americans now live in poverty, with half of this population living in extreme poverty, according to U.S. government estimates.

His observations of widespread homelessness, lack of access to safe environmental conditions, and inadequate health care availability gained traction in international and local media. But his trip’s absence from major domestic news coverage shows the complexity involved with influencing change.

Alston is a native Australian who has lived in the U.S. for the last 20 years, while maintaining a recognizably Australian accent. Yet calling the U.S. home makes him a “little bit of a fraud,” he told a roomful of West Virginians during a stop in Charleston, last December.

“Normally, these U.N. visits are done by someone who knows nothing about the country,” he said.

Dressed in a casual beige suit, Alston, now in his late 60s, maintained this effect throughout his packed day in Charleston. The tall, white-haired visitor was measured, softly spoken, and occasionally wry. He appeared engaged in every small detail, focused on each person whose hand he shook, and resolute in the significance of international human rights law.

“I don't want to get into the fight whether there is a minimum standard of living everyone in the U.S. should have. That is what international law says. I strongly believe that to be the case,” he said in Charleston. 

Alston is considered a preeminent expert in his field of international human rights law. He launched a career with the U.N. working on human rights issues in the late 1970s, and has since held a series of U.N. positions, consulting with the International Labour Organization, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. His earlier work included stints with the Australian government. Most recently, he held the position of U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.

Conversation with Alston flows easily, thoughtfully, without the influence of any particular agenda or jargon some experts in his position might try to introduce.

On his stop in Charleston, West Virginia, Alston hovered over a notepad as the invited civil society guests — experts, lawyers, and activists — took the lead during a conversation that extended for about two hours. Conversations veered from the shrinking space for women’s health care to the contamination of water sources for rural populations.

Alston was there, he told people, to listen.

He held back on the full extent of his reflections until after the trip concluded.

“The U.S. is a particularly difficult country to influence on these issues. It does not care about the United Nations.”

— Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

The idea of the U.S. as an exceptional nation is manifesting in “problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights,” Alston wrote at the end of his trip in December. “As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”

“As a rapporteur, I often go to countries and I put issues on the table that people were in denial about or pretending did not exist, and suddenly my report forces them to confront the issue,” he said. “That cannot be the case in the U.S. where there are so many civil society groups working on every issue, and no matter how scandalous something is, there is going to be a lot of reporting on it.”

A formal, more detailed report is expected this spring. So far, the Trump administration has not responded to requests for discussion.

“The U.S. is a particularly difficult country to influence on these issues. It does not care about the United Nations. For most countries, even large ones, if the U.N. says there is a terrible problem they are going to want to respond and the media are going to be interested in it. But that doesn't happen automatically in the U.S.,” Alston continued.  

Not in the name of the U.N.

Deniability is a word Alston uses to describe his relationship with the U.N.

There are many situations when the U.N. team is quite content with what I do and say. Often, I can say stuff that they have not been able to, but they agree with it completely,” he said. “But on the other hand, either it becomes highly controversial, or if they disagree with me then there is deniability. [Former U.N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon once said about me in relation to a mini-report I did about Sri Lanka, ‘Mr. Alston does not work for the U.N. and his views do not represent the U.N.’ And that’s fine.”

Reporting on the cholera outbreak in Haiti a few years ago highlighted the occasional contradictions between Alston and the work of the U.N.

After about six years of denying legal responsibility for introducing cholera to Haiti in 2010, Alston’s findings pushed the U.N. to alter its long-held public position. The outbreak, affecting more than 800,000 people and killing an estimated 10,000, would not have occurred without the introduction of the disease by infected U.N. peacekeepers, Alston found in 2016.

“The U.N.’s explicit and unqualified denial of anything other than a moral responsibility is a disgrace,” Alston then said. “If the United Nations bluntly refuses to hold itself accountable for human rights violations, it makes a mockery of its efforts to hold governments and others to account,” he noted.

Soon after, Ban Ki-moon apologized for the first time, and the U.N. then announced a new trust fund benefiting victims, their families, and the country’s sanitation system. The fund appears far from its goal of $400 million, but Alston’s influence on policy is still clear, as the timeline of events shows.

“I worked behind the scenes with U.N. officials for about eight, nine months before my report came out, trying to persuade them that they needed to change the policy, and at a certain point what happened was I did manage to catalyze a heated discussion within the U.N.,” he said. “But none of that came out and it was not likely, I think, to lead to a change of policy until they saw the report.”

How his work unfolds

Alston’s country visits require the agreement and invitation of the concerned government. He has recently written to Australia regarding legislation that would limit the use of foreign funding by social activist organizations. About half the countries he would like to visit actually extend an invitation, he explained. Many others, including those known for persistent human rights violations, remain mostly out of reach.

“There are a lot of countries I would like to visit who simply will never issue an invitation. I keep asking and they keep saying they are busy or not replying. But when it comes to a specific issue and allegation, as we call it, if it is considered to be sufficiently important and urgent, I can raise that to any government,” he said.  

The request for a country visit in the U.S. was first made to the State Department while the Obama administration was still in office.

These country visits involved “detailed, preparatory work,” as Alston says. His small team of three New York-based staffers, an assistant in Geneva, and some NYU research assistants help prepare a detailed, internal study of about 200 to 300 pages. More isolated visits on particular issues could involve understanding the ins and outs of a particular piece of legislation, and what potential violations of human rights law have been alleged.

Visits are often conducted when Alston has breaks during the school schedule.

“It is a constant juggling act because I do not get any reduction in teaching obligations, so I have to fit the mandate work around my basic job,” he said.

All the while, other issues, like the shrinking space for human rights defenders, have his attention.

“I think I am conscious of the threat that people feel because governments seem to be less constrained these days than they were a few years ago,” he said. 

The most dramatic example of this is the treatment of medical facilities and other civilian centers in places like Syria. People and institutions that previously received government protection are increasingly considered objects at risk of attack.

“That is a pretty dramatic change,” he said. “Human rights defenders are actually becoming targets in a great many countries, often through legal means trying to cut the access to financial resources, trying to limit their ability to network internationally — trying to restrict what they are allowed to do domestically and so on.”

Aside from his formal report on the situation in the U.S. and another country report on Ghana, Alston is also looking at social protection and the International Monetary Fund. That report will be presented in June.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.