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A Voice for the Poor

Philip Alston describes his goals as an advocate for the rights of the most impoverished.

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Do people have a right to a minimum level of economic welfare? Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law, certainly thinks so. He is making it a central issue in his role as UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, a three-year appointment that will allow him to investigate and report back on initiatives to protect the rights of people living in extreme poverty across the globe.

This is not Alston’s first time serving as a UN special rapporteur; from 2004 to 2010, the international law professor was the rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. But his new position comes with a different set of challenges. “At one level,” says Alston, “looking at unlawful killings is much easier, because you can generally count bodies. You can identify specific victims, and you can identify specific perpetrators.”

Video: Alston on taking on the role of rapporteur a second time

By contrast, poverty is often perceived as unsolvable. Extreme poverty is not caused by one factor alone; in addition to failures of governmental policy, causes of poverty can include social discrimination, violent conflict, and environmental conditions such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or climate change. That also means that governments can deflect responsibility and blame extreme poverty on factors out of their control. Says Alston: “The challenge for me is to make sure that what I say identifies tangible challenges that can be met and helps to mobilize broader public opinion to actually do something about the issues.”

One of the reasons NGOs and human rights organizations have tended to stay away from the intersection of economics and human rights, Alston says, is that human rights activists are wary of veering into economic policy debates and are particularly hesitant to advocate for any kind of redistribution of resources. “My view is that without forms of redistribution, which is what progressive taxation is all about, you can achieve only a very limited subset of human rights,” Alston says. “All human rights involve some form of redistribution of resources. And to identify this as a line that can’t be crossed is a big mistake.”

Although conditions of extreme poverty are often more widespread in developing countries, Alston argues that it is important to hold nations accountable according to their resources. “There’s no doubt in the United States that the close to 50 million people who are living in poverty by our own estimates could be lifted out of that poverty with appropriate public policies,” Alston says. That statistic is unacceptable in a country as wealthy as the United States, he argues, and it indicates that as a society, “we don’t consider that there is a right to live in dignity, and with access to the minimum essential economic and social goods that are required.”

Alston has already joined two other UN rapporteurs in condemning the disconnection of water services in Detroit homes where residents cannot pay their bills. That action “constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” they said in a statement. Within days, the Detroit authorities announced that they would revise the policies they had previously insisted were non-negotiable.

As Alston sees it, he must be an effective voice advocating on behalf of the impoverished because circumstances hinder their ability to advocate for themselves. Facing conditions in which access to basic rights such as food, water, and shelter is limited, the extremely poor often cannot exercise their civil and political rights. “They can’t get out to vote, they don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, they don’t have the transport, they don’t have anything,” Alston says. “So the right to vote is often quite meaningless to them—they’re engaged in a daily struggle for existence.”

Video: Alston on metrics for success

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