- Philip AlstonUnited Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He has been researching extreme poverty and human rights in the U.S. and will be presenting his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The Trump administration will reportedly withdraw the United States from the U.N.'s Human Rights Council. Reuters reports the decision is “imminent” and comes after the U.N. General Assembly voted 120 to 8 on Wednesday to condemn Israel over its massacre of Palestinians protesting nonviolently against Israel's occupation. We speak with Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He will speak in front of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva next week about poverty in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The Trump administration will reportedly withdraw the United States out of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Reuters reports the decision is “imminent” and comes after the United Nations General Assembly voted 120 to 8 Wednesday to condemn Israel over its massacre of Palestinians protesting nonviolently against Israel’s occupation.
To discuss this breaking news, we’re joined by Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who will speak in front of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva next Thursday about poverty in the United States.
Philip Alston, this breaking news that it is imminent that the U.S. will pull out—you just sent your report on extreme poverty to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. She hasn’t responded to it?
PHILIP ALSTON: No, no reply.
AMY GOODMAN: Will the U.S. be there next week, when you give your report?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, according to the reports, if they really go ahead and pull out on Monday, that means no. The U.S. has done this before. John Bolton led a walkout some time ago, under the Bush administration. The U.S. was out for three years. That was a very negative development, I think. And the Obama administration then brought the U.S. back in.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s very interesting, because John Bolton just recently became President Trump’s national security adviser, which is a position not approved by the Senate. And when he became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when he pulled the U.S. out, President Bush had to make a recess appointment, knowing he would not be approved by the Senate.
PHILIP ALSTON: I think John Bolton has always had a pretty negative view of the United Nations. And the Human Rights Council is a fairly soft target.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what does this mean? What does it mean that the U.S. is not a part of this body that looks at human rights around the world? First, let’s address the issue that the U.S. is giving as the reason for pulling out, the U.N. General Assembly’s almost universal condemnation of the violent attacks by the Israeli military on nonviolent protesters since March 30th. I believe more than 120 Palestinians have been killed. Well over 13,000 have been injured in these protests, by Israeli snipers and the military.
PHILIP ALSTON: I think, obviously, you’ve got to look at the voting on this issue, without even getting into all of the really awful stuff about the violations that have been going on. If you’ve got eight countries in the entire world who don’t think that Israel should have been condemned for these actions, you need to ask, “Why are these eight going against all the others?” And those eight consist of the United States, Australia and six other very small countries, very small players. Essentially, all of the countries of Western Europe, all of the United States’ allies joined in the United Nations action in relation to Israel.
So, you’ve got a very small handful of people trying to defend a position which is very difficult, which is that there shouldn’t be a proper, independent investigation of the actions that took place. Regardless of the final—of the bottom line, the investigation is essential. And the United States itself, again, would say that in relation to a whole range of other countries and situations. In some ways, Israel is being treated differently, but by the United States and Australia as much as by the U.N.
AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Haley said, delivering a speech at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, “If it fails to change”—talking about the U.N. Human Rights Council—”then we must pursue the advancement of human rights outside of the council.”
PHILIP ALSTON: It really depends, to be honest, how they do it. I think it’s very bad for—it’s bad for the council, because the United States remains a very important player. It’s bad for the United States, because this is a really important forum in which it can push other countries to do things. When they withdrew last time, in fact, they remained fairly vigilant behind the scenes. There was an incident where I, as special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions back in those days, was the subject of a resolution for my dismissal, because a number of countries didn’t like the reporting that I was doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened then.
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, it was, essentially, an effort by countries, led by Russia and India, as a backlash to the fact that I had presented reports on a lot of countries that were killing people around the world. The LGBTI issue was part of it, but also just a whole range of countries where I was reporting on killings and so on. And so, these countries decided to take the initiative, and it would have been unprecedented. But I learned subsequently that the United States, which was not a member and which was only present in the corridors, nonetheless said to the allies and so on, “This guy is doing important work. We want to protect him.” So, the U.S. could, even if it withdraws, continue to play a constructive role.
The problem is, of course, that this administration is not sending any signals that that is likely to happen. And so I think if you do have a complete withdrawal, you have to ask then what the other forums are where the U.S. can stand up for human rights. And whether you like the U.N., whether you like its Human Rights Council or not, there are not other forums that bring together all of the relevant states and where pressure can be applied for more decent standards of rights.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from an article in The Nation magazine from January, “To add to potential grievances against the Human Rights Council, where the current US term as a member would normally end in 2019, a UN monitor on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston of New York University Law School, released a report in mid-December saying that there had been 'a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty.'” So, The Nation is attributing, at least in part, the U.S. pulling out of the Human Rights Council, if indeed it does—it does say it’s “imminent”—to this report that you have just released on extreme poverty.
PHILIP ALSTON: It’s interesting that when I arrived in Washington, D.C., to begin my visit, I met, as one must, with the U.S. State Department. And in that briefing, a comment was made which suggested that perhaps I should bear in mind that my report might have some implications in terms of the U.S. possibly withdrawing from the council. I didn’t take that suggestion too seriously, because I don’t think—I’ve done a lot of reporting on a lot of countries around the world. The issues are always tough. Governments never enjoy being criticized. That’s what it’s all about. But I certainly hadn’t expected that the United States would react in this way.
My suspicion is that there’s a range of different reasons for withdrawing. I think the fact that my report is up next week, will be discussed by a whole range of other countries, is not really very appealing to them. I don’t really think that Israel is the sole issue. I think that’s being dealt with in a variety of other forums. Are they going to pull out of the United Nations General Assembly, because that’s the body that recently adopted this resolution they don’t like? They, almost certainly, can’t and won’t do that. So there must be other problems with the Human Rights Council. And I think it’s just a general reluctance to participate in the process of being held accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: Maybe this is part of John Bolton’s efforts to—what did he talk about? Lopping off 10 floors of the United Nations—that’s what he’d like to see. He said that back under the George Bush, W. Bush, administration. In Part 1 of our discussion, we talked about your findings, but if you could, just in a nutshell, summarize for us what you found in your report on extreme poverty?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, first of all, the United States doesn’t accept that there are what the rest of the world calls social rights, economic and social rights, like a right to healthcare, a right to access to food, a right to housing. So, I didn’t, when I came to the U.S., apply those standards. What I did was to say, “Let’s look at the extent of poverty, and then let’s look at the impact of such widespread poverty on the enjoyment of civil and political rights.” Those are the rights, of course, which the United States upholds, which it believes are absolutely fundamental to its democracy and so on. And so, the argument I made is that even if you don’t care about social rights, if your only focus is on respecting civil rights and political rights, you are undermining those rights by tolerating, and indeed facilitating, such immense poverty.
AMY GOODMAN: And quickly, if you can say not only which states you went to, but where you visited within them, what places you went to?
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, I was only visiting for 12 days. It’s very hard to get across the country and so on. I had to make all sorts of choices. One of the interesting things was that I got emails from people around the country saying, “I can’t believe you haven’t come to my city or my county. Things are much grimmer here than they are where you went.”
AMY GOODMAN: And here you were doing a report on extreme poverty.
PHILIP ALSTON: Right. And they gave very detailed cases as to why I should be going to their locations. I went—I wanted to look at a state that is different, a Democratic state. I wanted to look at the question of homelessness, so I went to California. I spent time in both L.A. and San Francisco. I walked the streets where the homeless people are. I spoke to a lot of them. I spoke to all of the city and county authorities and so on.
I then went over to Alabama, there to look at the race dimension, to look at the very stark contrast between the sort of facilities that the government provides in cities compared with the complete neglect of the counties that have—of course, are overwhelmingly African-American and don’t get most of the services and so on that are available elsewhere.
I went up to West Virginia. I spoke to a lot of people about healthcare, for example, of the number of people, because West Virginia and Alabama are both states that have rejected the Medicaid extension. What was interesting, I spoke to health authorities in both of those states and said, “So what do you think of this decision not to take the Medicaid extension?” And they couldn’t, of course, say, “We condemn our Legislature.” But they said, “Well, we have to say, we are very puzzled by it, because it certainly has very negative health consequences. We don’t understand it. We presume it’s politics above our pay grade.” In other words, they were saying this is really incomprehensible, given the health consequences.
And then I went to Puerto Rico, where I saw immense poverty, not just in the aftermath of the hurricane, but long-lasting, and very low levels of benefits and the prospect of things becoming much worse under the so-called bankruptcy regime that’s now been put in place.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, can you comment on extreme poverty globally? We started by talking about the ostensible reason the U.S. says it’s pulling out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, around the U.N. General Assembly’s condemnation of Israeli military violence against Palestinians. Interestingly, according to the Middle East Monitor, more than half of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip live below the poverty line—this according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. And according to a report by Middle East Monitor, close to 30 percent of Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza Strip live below the poverty line, and, in 2017, while 16.8 percent suffered deep poverty, while 97 percent of the water in Gaza is polluted. So, talk about just the effects of poverty and extreme poverty on populations around the world, as the richest are increasingly consolidating wealth around the world.
PHILIP ALSTON: Right. One of the most interesting things, in a way, is that when I visit countries around the world and talk about extreme poverty, the answer that often comes up is, “We just don’t have the money. We’d like to help these people. We can’t afford it.” That was really put into stark relief in the United States, because I was here at the time when the tax bill was being passed. And, of course, if you’ve got one-and-a-half trillion to help corporations and wealthy individuals, you could certainly find money to eliminate extreme poverty in this country very quickly. But, of course, the political will is not there.
It contrasts, interestingly—and the U.S. will, no doubt, hate this sort of comparison—but China, which certainly has many human rights problems and which I reported on very critically, nonetheless is indeed in the process of completely eliminating extreme poverty. Because Xi Jinping has made it a presidential priority, officials are under great pressure to make sure that every last person living in extreme poverty is helped, and it really is a political issue.
But I think you’re right, more broadly, as we see the spread of neoliberal policies, as we see the extent to which organizations like the International Monetary Fund, on which I’ve just done a report and which I’ll be submitting to the Human Rights Council next week, as well—the IMF is not serious, at this stage, about what they call social protection. They talk the talk. They say, “When we go into a country, when we prescribe fiscal consolidation”—meaning austerity—”we try to get them to protect basic levels of social well-being.” But the reality is that those efforts are pretty much just token at this stage. And so you’ve got the whole thrust of neoliberal policies—deregulation, privatization, cutting back of government budgets and so on—all helping to create worse levels of poverty, and no compensatory measures being pushed by the key actors.
AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about extreme poverty, there is a protest sign that’s circulating online that reads, “How many homeless people does it take to make a billionaire?” Talk about the connection between extreme poverty and extreme wealth. You have The Guardian reporting in December that President Trump will personally save up to $15 million under his own tax bill that was passed.
PHILIP ALSTON: I think one of the things that is most frustrating is that the supporters of what we might call the new economic order, which is dominated by a handful of tech companies and other huge corporations, are themselves, apparently, totally unconcerned about the implications of their own actions on people living in poverty. So, the classic example—but we’ve seen it elsewhere—was the action in Seattle to roll back the plan that the local council had to put taxes up on certain corporations in order to raise money to address a chronic homelessness problem. You had cries of outrage from Amazon and from a range of other major corporations, saying, “This is completely unacceptable.”
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Jeff Bezos, I believe, if not the richest, one of the top few richest people in the world, who owns Amazon.
PHILIP ALSTON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And The Washington Post.
PHILIP ALSTON: And so, what is the response of the large corporations? They see the rollbacks in terms of taxation. They know that they’re contributing ever less to the public revenue, and thus to the ability of government to provide basic services. They are facilitating and profiting from the privatization of all these services which were once provided publicly. And I think corporations really do need to look at themselves and say, “What are we doing about extreme poverty?”
One of the things that’s interesting is—and you had mentioned it earlier on your show—is this proposal to have some sort of universal basic income. Now, that has a lot of attractions, to the extent that we are insisting that there’s a principle that everyone should have at least this minimum level. But it also has a lot of risks, which is why it’s being supported by a lot of important actors in Silicon Valley, including Mark Zuckerberg and others. The risks are that the governments and others say, “But we’re providing this basic income to poor people. We, therefore, don’t need to provide these other services. We can continue to roll back all of the services that are provided for people living in poverty.” And that would make the situation much worse.
So, the supporters of universal basic income, the broader array of corporate actors, all need to start addressing: What the hell are they going to do to really make sure that the poverty levels are not greatly exacerbated by the trends that they themselves are driving? And they can’t simply say, “But that’s not for us to do. We’re not government,” because they know the direction in which government policies are heading in many countries, not just the United States. They know that those policies are not focusing on the plight of people living in poverty. So there is a major corporate responsibility that’s being completely ignored.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about you’re also filing a report with the International Monetary Fund. We’re seeing increasing protests against IMF-promoted policies—for example, in Argentina in May, thousands of people in the streets protesting the government’s bid to secure a credit line from the IMF, which they blame for hardship and financial crises.
PHILIP ALSTON: I mean, the IMF has a terrible reputation in Argentina. I think most people accept that it didn’t handle the crisis back in 2000 well, that it did exacerbate austerity. The IMF itself has said, “You know, maybe some of our austerity policies, in general, have been counterproductive.” In Argentina, they are supposedly trying, in this new agreement, which will go to their board later this month, to soften the impact, to include some protection for, quote, “basic social expenditures.” We don’t know the details of that yet. But it’s very hard, of course, if you’re pushing these very austere deficit-reduction targets—and I think Argentina commits to being in the black by 2020 under the agreement—to, at the same time, have genuine protection for social protection. It remains to be seen. It would be wonderful if the IMF really has learned its lesson and if this is going to be an agreement that takes social rights seriously. But I’m not very optimistic.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll see. Neither are thousands of people who have been in the streets. But, finally, you went to Alabama, and you talked about the issue of sewage. Explain what you saw and how it compares to the rest of the world.
PHILIP ALSTON: Well, there’s a very—there’s a fascinating contrast, in a way, which is that, in a country like India and a number of other countries around the world, there are big campaigns against open defecation—in other words, saying, “We must establish a comprehensive network, sewerage network, so that people have access to proper toilets.” It’s very bad for health, it’s very bad for the economy—and, of course, it’s grim for the people—to have these sorts of arrangements.
So, when I went to Alabama, to be taken to houses that were extremely close to major cities and to see the sewage just being pumped out into the front garden or into a creek nearby or whatever is shocking. And the response of the authorities was, “Well, no, we don’t have any plans to provide sewage to those counties, those people. You know, they can buy it themselves.” And so, of course, I asked some people, “What’s the cost of a septic system in an area like this?” And the answer was, “Actually, it’s difficult, because the soil is pretty tough. It could cost $30,000.” If you are living even quite a decent standard of living, you can’t afford $30,000 for sewage. So, I would have seen this as a basic obligation of government to at least have a program to say that, over a period of 10 years or whatever, we will cover all of the houses in our state with decent sewerage facilities. But there’s none of that. And so, the contrast between developing countries, that are making a major effort, saying, “This is unacceptable. We can’t let this go on,” and what I saw in Alabama was pretty striking.
AMY GOODMAN: Philip Alston, I want to thank you for being with us, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, researching extreme poverty and human rights in the U.S., will be reporting his findings next week, on Thursday, at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. If the reports are true, the U.S. may well have pulled out of the U.N. Human Rights Council by then.
To see Part 1 of our discussion with Philip Alston, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.