United States

American inequality

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Philip Alston, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, a file photograph. Photo: Jason Lee/REUTERS

The Donald Trump administration’s response to a factual report on extreme inequality and poverty in the U.S. was to attack it and to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which appointed the Special Rapporteur who wrote the report.

In June, the United States government withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body formed in 2006. It gave two main reasons for its action.

First, the Human Rights Council was pursuing serious action against business firms that had operations inside the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Israeli construction in the Territory is deemed illegal by several U.N. resolutions. The Human Rights Council has merely acted on the basis of those resolutions to start the process that will eventually end—if there is no political veto—with sanctions against these firms. Secondly, the Human Rights Council has produced a vivid, disturbing report on the extreme inequality and poverty in the U.S., taking the reader into the heart of poverty in the country.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley attacked the Council for what she considered its bias against Israel and for its “misleading and politically motivated” report on American poverty. The U.S., which has made it a habit to walk out of U.N. conventions and agencies in the past several decades, walked out of the Council too. There is no indication that it will return any time soon.

Professor Philip Alston, a professor of law at New York University and the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote the report. Of Australian origin, Alston has lived for many years in the U.S. and has been called upon by the U.N. on several occasions to do important work for it. He was the first Rapporteur for the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, from 1987 to 1991, and then the committee’s chair from 1991 to 1998. Alston worked across the U.N. system to improve the system of monitoring human rights violations. He wrote three important reports (1989, 1993 and 1997) on how to reform the U.N. system’s work on human rights. Everything about these reports and about Alston’s academic writings shows him to be a sensitive person who wants to make a difference in a world that is often dangerous and bewildering.

Targeted assassination

As far as the U.S. government is concerned, Alston’s most controversial work took place when he was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2004 to 2010. In this period, Alston studied the idea of “targeted killings”, a Central Intelligence Agency concept that human rights advocates have strongly criticised. Alston’s gaze fell on drones. He showed how the regime of targeted assassinations by drones and by an attitude known as “shoot to kill” seriously violated not only international laws but also U.S. law.

Alston’s statement that accompanied his 29-page report for the Human Rights Council in 2010 was damning. “I’m pretty concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact”—the fact that anyone can call anyone a terrorist and kill them—“when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe”. There was more that he had to say. “But this strongly asserted but ill-defined licence to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.”

The administration of President Barack Obama swatted aside this report. There was no substantial response to Alston’s warning, not only about the illegality of the targeted killings but also their potential use by other powers which would use the U.S. actions as justifications for their own assassinations. The idea of “encounter killing” in India would fall into this category. In fact, Christof Heyns, Alston’s successor as Special Rapporteur, explicitly said so in 2012, worrying about the “high levels of impunity” in the Indian police and armed forces.

Structural poverty

In 2017, the U.N. decided to turn its attention to structural poverty in the U.S. The U.N.’s statement came at the same time as the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene published a paper on “Human Intestinal Parasite Burden and Poor Sanitation in Rural Alabama”. Early into the paper, the authors refer to the work of the Alabama Centre for Rural Enterprise, which found that there “continue to be residences without adequate sanitation systems, increasing exposure to open sewage near dwellings”. As a consequence of these conditions, the study found an outbreak of hookworm in Alabama. The epicentre of the outbreak was Lowndes County, the same area where the Black Panther Party was formed in 1965. What the Panthers, or the Lowndes County Freedom Party, found in the 1960s was extreme poverty. What the Alabama Centre for Rural Enterprise found over half a century later were the same conditions. It helped focus the attention of the U.N. and of Alston.

A month later, Alston and his team spent two weeks in Alabama. The Alabama Centre for Rural Enterprise organised their visit. Its director, Catherine Flowers, said that people needed to have more than the right to vote. They needed to have access to a better life. What Alston’s team saw shocked it. Raw sewage flowed out of homes and welled up where children played. Alston saw homes with no or limited electricity and no sewage connections. In Butler County, Alabama, Alston told a man that he would bring attention to these issues just as he had brought attention to torture.

Statement to the U.N.

When Alston returned to New York, he made a statement to the U.N. One section bears reading in full:

“I have seen and heard a lot over the past two weeks. I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage-filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programmes available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by prescription and other drug addiction, and I met with people in the south of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death.”

Alston directly criticised the Donald Trump administration for its “dramatic cuts in welfare” and for a new tax policy that would allow the rich to keep their money and the poor to fester in despair. These were harsh words.

This is what provoked Nikki Haley to frontally attack Alston. “The Special Rapporteur,” she said, “wasted the U.N.’s time and resources, deflecting attention from the world’s worst human rights abusers and focussing instead on the wealthiest and freest country in the world.” This was not a response to the people who had lost their teeth because they had no dental care.

Bernie Sanders, Vermont Senator, a democratic socialist, gathered together 19 other Senators to offer a plea that the U.S. Congress stand up for the poor and tackle the “massive levels of deprivation and the immense suffering this deprivation causes”. It is a telling fact that Sanders, who ran for President in the last cycle, could only get 20 lawmakers out of 535 to endorse his plea. Forty million Americans live in poverty, according to U.S. government numbers, and 30 million Americans have no health insurance. “I hope you agree,” Sanders asked of his fellow lawmakers, “that in a nation in which the top three people own more wealth than the bottom half, we can and must do much better than that.”

The Trump administration’s response to a factual report on poverty was to attack it and to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council. It was far easier to throw a tantrum than to produce policies that would eradicate the basis for hookworm and for obesity, for the diseases of poverty.

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