#372      41 min 22 sec
The road to dignity: Philip Alston on freedom from poverty as a human right

Is extreme poverty merely evidence of failed economic policy or should it also be seen as a breach of human rights? Legal scholar and UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston argues that the conversation around human rights has yet to take seriously how the world's very poor are excluded from a life of dignity -- underpinned by access to education, basic health care and housing -- while extreme inequality is itself in part sustained by the blocking of civil and political rights by elites. Presented by Peter Mares.

As long as elites ignore the consequences of extreme inequality, as long as they don't deal with what we call economic and social rights as human rights, then they are essentially contributing to the maintenance of the status quo. -- Prof Philip Alston




Prof Philip Alston
Prof Philip Alston

Philip Alston was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014, by the Human Rights Council.

Born and educated in Australia (Law and Economics) and with a doctorate from the University of California, he is an international law scholar and human rights practitioner. He is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University School of Law and has previously taught at various law schools around the world, including the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Harvard Law School, Australian National University, and the European University Institute.

Professor Alston has also served the United Nations in various capacities since the 1980s. He was the first Rapporteur of the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights from 1987 until 1990, and then chaired the Committee for eight years until the end of 1998. During this period, he played a central role in efforts to reform and streamline the U.N. treaty body system and, as an Independent Expert appointed by the U.N. Secretary-General, he reported to the General Assembly on measures to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the U.N. human rights treaty bodies (reports in 1989, 1993 and 1997). Between 2002 and 2007, he served as Special Adviser to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals, and between 2004 and 2010, as Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. He was also Unicef’s legal adviser throughout the process of drafting the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Credits

Host: Peter Mares
Producer: Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Louise Bennet
Series Creators: Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel

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VOICEOVER

This is Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.


PETER MARES

Hello, I'm Peter Mares. Welcome to Up Close.

If people live in extreme poverty, is that merely evidence of failed economic policy or could it also be seen as a breach of their human rights? Human rights tend to be expressed, particularly in the West, as a set of freedoms; my freedom to vote, express an opinion, join a trade union etcetera, and these freedoms are backed by the idea of equality before the law regardless of my race, religion, political belief or income. Yet the very first article of the University Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The idea of human dignity comes first in the sentence and it's not hard to see that living in abject poverty is an affront to human dignity. If I am too poor to adequately feed and clothe my own child, then my dignity and the dignity of my child are diminished.

So why don't human rights organisations talk about poverty very much, or for that matter why don't development agencies like the World Bank for example use the language of rights? To explore these issues, I am joined by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, international law expert Professor Philip Alston. Born and educated in Australia, Philip Alston holds the John Norton Pomeroy Chair in Law at New York University and over the past 30 years he's served the United Nations in many high-level capacities, including as Special Adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals and a Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Philip Alston, thank you for taking the time to join us on Up Close.


PHILIP ALSTON

My pleasure.


PETER MARES

Let's start with the definitional issue: what do you mean by extreme poverty? How do you define it?


PHILIP ALSTON

Extreme poverty can be approached in a strictly statistical or numerical way, which is how we too often treat it. 


PETER MARES

You mean just how much income you have, whether you live on more than $2 a day or something?


PHILIP ALSTON

Exactly. So all of the figures that were bandied around in the context of the Millennium Development Goals, whenever we hear from the World Bank about levels of poverty and so on what they're doing is applying that simple figure, which used to be $1.25 a day which they've now bumped up to $1.90 a day just in the last year or so. But there are many other ways of looking at poverty, and virtually every other international organisation prefers to use a concept of what they call multi-dimensional poverty which tries to take account of a much broader range of factors than simply the amount of income available on a daily basis.


PETER MARES

What other factors would be taken into account there?


PHILIP ALSTON

Well, when you're looking at multidimensional poverty you are trying to look at deprivations that exist at the household level, whether in health, schooling, living conditions and so on. So it's a much broader array of factors that are taken into account.


PETER MARES

So you might say that if someone has more than $2 a day they're not in absolute poverty in one sense but if their kids can't go to school or if they can't get medical care when they're unwell then they're impoverished in other ways?


PHILIP ALSTON

I think what you're getting at is that poverty in some respects is a relative notion, which is certainly true. But the more basic point of course is that $1.90 a day will probably feed you, because it means you might get access to basic foodstuffs, but it doesn’t give any quality of life at all for the individual or his or her family.


PETER MARES

So we come back to ideas of dignity here.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right.


PETER MARES

And I suppose the idea that there are certain characteristics of life that are essential to a dignified life, and they would include such things as access to education?


PHILIP ALSTON

Certainly access to education, access to basic health care.


PETER MARES

Housing.


PHILIP ALSTON

Housing, shelter, access to water, ideally access to sanitation.


PETER MARES

If we look at the relationship between poverty and rights, there's a kind of chicken-and-egg issue here, isn't there, in a way? If you look at say a woman in Afghanistan who's living in extreme poverty, as a result of that some of her basic rights might be denied. She may not be able to get access to health care or to properly care for her children or something like that. But perhaps she is poor because she's a woman and she was denied the right to education as a girl. So which comes first, the denial of her rights or the poverty? What's the relationship between the two?


PHILIP ALSTON

Well, I think it's an integral and complex relationship. I don't think either necessarily comes first; it cuts both ways. If you start off being poor the likelihood is that you won't ever really get proper access to your civil and political rights. It's one thing to say oh yes, but they have a vote. Extremely poor people generally will be unable to get to a polling station, will be unable to follow the debates that are going on, they don't have access to the media in the same way that we assume everyone does, and so on. If you are very poor you spend all your time scrabbling for food, trying to find clothing for your family, trying to get enough money for heating if you live in Australia in the winter, and those sorts of things. So your focus on civil and political rights and your ability to really enjoy those is extremely constrained.

But it also cuts the other way; if you have no civil and political rights, then it's much more likely that you can be discriminated against, and discrimination is a key cause of poverty. You mentioned gender, so women are heavily discriminated against in virtually every country, but there are all sorts of ethnic minorities and racial groups that are completely excluded from many societies. The fact that you belong to X racial or ethnic group means that the government is not going to provide services in your area, that the government is busily enriching some other group and impoverishing your group so the absence of civil and political rights is what is leading very directly to your impoverishment.


PETER MARES

So it's not surprising therefore that we often see a kind of overlap between the poorest section of the population and the section of the population who are most discriminated against, who experience the most discrimination. In the Australian context the obvious example is Indigenous Australians.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right. I think wherever one goes in the world - I was recently in Mauritania, which is best known I suppose in the West for having only abolished slavery in the course of the early years of this century. But of course, you have a large percentage of the population, 30 per cent at least, who are called Haratines, who are the ex-slaves. So it's one thing to be released from formal legal slavery, but essentially they're released into a state of poverty. They have no resources, their ability to exercise political rights is very constrained in practice, and they are more or less condemned to living lives which are certainly an improvement from formal slavery but still enjoy no human dignity or basic access to all of their essential needs.


PETER MARES

Would you say the same thing or draw the same parallel with India and the caste system in India? Because we're getting onto very tricky territory here, the territory of cultural difference and so on, but in India discrimination against castes and people on the basis of caste is formally unlawful but we all know it goes on.


PHILIP ALSTON

Yes. It applies in all societies. One of the things that's most interesting of course about that is the extent to which governments, which are by definition generally representative of the elite, go out of their way to suppress demographic information which would enable us to point very clearly to the correlations between ethnicity and poverty. India I think is a pretty obvious example in many ways, but I'll give you a more interesting example in a way. Again, I was in Romania not so long ago and Romania has a fairly significant Roma population, the biggest Roma population in Western Europe.


PETER MARES

Roma are sometimes referred to as gypsies, of course.


PHILIP ALSTON

Yes, or travellers or whatever. When I was there I was asking government officials in Romania, so how many Roma do you have? Or in this particular context, what's the percentage of Roma who live in poverty etcetera? The response that I got was, [well] we don't know, and I said well, that's a bit silly, isn't it, that you don't know? And the answer was no, no; in fact, it would be discriminatory for us to be identifying people. So if you, Peter Mares, walk into the studio we don't want to say, can you tell us if you're Roma or not?

So we are blind to all those matters, and indeed, we are required by the European Union to be blind to those things. Of course, the truth is that the European Union directive that they cited says no such thing; the truth is that they do collect such data because in order to get funds from the European Union, which are immense in the Romanian context, they have to disaggregate, but for all other public policy purposes they pretend they don't know.


PETER MARES

That is a political choice, presumably?


PHILIP ALSTON

It's political because they don't facilitate your being able to say okay, so the average income or the average life expectancy or whatever of a Roma person is this amount and it is vastly smaller than the average for the other ethnic groups so it's much harder to get those statistics; you conceal the political reality.


PETER MARES

What if we turn though to a country like Australia, we talk about the gap between Indigenous Australians and other Australians in life expectancy, in education levels, in health and so on, and the Government here would say but look, we have all these dedicated programs, we're doing everything we can, we throw billions of dollars at Indigenous Australia, so it's not as if there's an attempt to ignore the problem or deny it here in Australia, yet still some people would say programs fail.


PHILIP ALSTON

First of all, I wouldn't underestimate the complexity of the situation which is not uncommon around the world, particularly with Indigenous groups but with other minority groups. One of the deeper issues that we tend to be in denial about are the social attitudes towards the marginalised group and the extent to which they are really part of the political discourse and the political context.


PETER MARES

So again, the extent to which their economic possibilities are inhibited by a denial of their political and human rights?


PHILIP ALSTON

Well, I'm not an expert on current Aboriginal policy but if I take equivalent situations that I've seen recently, indigenous groups in Chile, the Roma in Romania and so on, what you find is that governments have the same refrain: basically, we give these bastards a hell of a lot of money and why they're not doing better is beyond us. Then of course you speak to people in the street and you find all of the - what one could I think unfortunately call racist attitudes, so the people are dirty, they are lazy, they don't want to improve their situation.


PETER MARES

They're not helping themselves?


PHILIP ALSTON

Not helping themselves. What that leads to is that when a member of the elite confronts or encounters one of those people it's an exercise in degradation, because they're not going to be given a job, they're not going to be rented the apartment that is available, they're not going to be welcomed into the same cafes even - I'm not talking about an apartheid system but it's just a general we don't like these people. So all of the economic involvement can be significantly undermined by the political exclusion which goes on because we're not changing attitudes and we still believe deeply that these people are inferior and to blame entirely for their own problems.


PETER MARES

This is Up Close, I'm Peter Mares, and I'm in conversation with Philip Alston, who is the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

Philip Alston, some people would say well, the answer to this is actually economic. In fact, if you look at the statistics, things are going pretty well; the proportion of the world's population who live on less than $1.90 a day, which is the current measure of absolute poverty, has declined significantly, down from 37 per cent in 1990 to something like 10 per cent today. Or if we look at infant mortality, again, rates have halved from 63 deaths per 1000 births in 1992; 32 deaths per 1000 births in 2015. So there is an argument that look, give it time, we're working on this, economic growth will solve these problems, what is there to worry about?


PHILIP ALSTON

It's true that economic growth is an important part of the equation and can make a very big difference, but when we quote the various global figures like the ones you've quoted, China looms very much larger than life. It's the Chinese economic miracle of the last few decades that have brought the majority of those people out of extreme poverty. When we look at the situation in Africa, for example, the picture is radically different. There is no such improvement, certainly not on anything like that scale. When we look even at the middle income countries, we find that that is actually where extreme poverty rates are not moving significantly. So what we find in fact is inequality is growing rapidly along with the economic growth, meaning that the benefits are going primarily to the top percentiles.


PETER MARES

Some economists would say well, actually that's not a problem, there's the old rising tide lifts all boats lifts all boats analogy, and of course the superyachts get lifted a bit higher than the little dinghies, but the dinghies too are coming up, that is the argument. So inequality doesn’t matter if the base - this is the argument - if the base level is still improving, fewer people as a result are living in absolute poverty.


PHILIP ALSTON

That's the line that we've been fed very systematically, and it's the line that neoliberal governments around the world are constantly peddling. I think the most interesting pushback against that, leaving aside all of the socialists and other crazy people, turn to the International Monetary Fund, the bastion of neoliberal conservatism or orthodoxy. The IMF has recently said, for a number of years now actually, that the levels of inequality that we are witnessing are deeply damaging, that they are bad for growth, they're not nearly as effective as if we had more equal distribution in our society, which would generate more growth than we get. They are of course bad for social inclusion because it means a lot of people are being left behind, and they exacerbate greatly the risks of tensions and conflicts within societies.


PETER MARES

Social upheaval, etcetera?


PHILIP ALSTON

Yes.


PETER MARES

So the argument, the IMF argument here is that rising levels of inequality instrumentally is a bad thing, is likely to lead to less stable growth and less stable societies.


PHILIP ALSTON

Yes, that's certainly the argument that they are making. I don't want to push this argument too far but if we look at
political developments around the world, whether it's the election cycle in the United States and its very great unpredictability, whether it's the British decision some time ago to leave the European Union, a lot of these things are, according to many analysts, driven by the deep dissatisfaction of the middle classes. Not those in extreme poverty because they're screwed one way or the other.


PETER MARES

And their voices are often silenced altogether.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right. But the middle classes are clearly losing out, and that's simply a fact. So much of the wealth that has been generated in the last few decades has simply been taken by the top 10 per cent or the top one per cent, and those in the middle have seen their situation improve very little. So there is a degree of frustration when you walk around the great cities in the world, no matter where, you see increasingly obscene levels of wealth. The poor and the middle class see those levels as well; they see them on TV, they see them wherever, and that is generating resentment, and a politics of resentment which can then be picked up on by populists. So I think we underestimate the extent to which social stability in our societies is actually dependent upon trying to reduce extreme inequality.


PETER MARES

And the numbers are shocking, aren’t they? Oxfam recently estimated that the richest one per cent of the world's population own 50 per cent of the world's wealth. How do you respond when you hear a statistic like that? What's your response to that sort of statistic?


PHILIP ALSTON

The figure that Oxfam, the translation is that 62 individuals own the same wealth as 50 per cent of the global population, which is 3.6 billion, so 62 individuals.


PETER MARES

Sixty-two individuals own the equivalent wealth of 3.6 billion?


PHILIP ALSTON

Yes. What's interesting is that just five years earlier that figure was 388 individuals. In other words, even in the space of the last five years there has been a dramatic increase in the extent of inequality.


PETER MARES

This is not just about numbers and not just about the prospects for stability, is it?


PHILIP ALSTON

I have a very particular take on all of this. The charitable explanation that you would find from what I'll call, for want of a better term, neoliberals is look, what you've got is 62 brilliant entrepreneurs - Bill Gates type model, had an idea, pushed it, and made a lot of money out of it. Who can complain about that?


PETER MARES

And lots of spin-off benefits for the rest of the world in terms of jobs and computing and so on.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right, exactly. I'm all in favour of that, that sort of entrepreneurship is fantastic. The reason that these handful of individuals have been able to accumulate such dramatic wealth is because in large part they and their friends have captured control of the political system and they have instituted programs that avoid any basic redistribution of wealth. They have systematically lowered tax rates and they have systematically tolerated, and even put in place tax loopholes which enable the largest corporations in the world to systematically avoid taxation, which enable many of the wealthiest individuals not to pay any significant tax, and these things are not unintended. These things are not loopholes that we haven’t been able to work out; we know what the loopholes are but the elites don't want to change them. So they are building a system which facilitates the gigantic share of the world's wealth being cornered by this very small number of extremely wealthy individuals.


PETER MARES

This brings us back to the link between economics and human rights, doesn’t it?


PHILIP ALSTON

Uh-huh.


PETER MARES

In the sense that if the system is highly skewed in favour of an elite, that elite will then shape the system, laws, etcetera in its own interests and deny the rights of large numbers of people?


PHILIP ALSTON

Well, what's interesting, and this is a big issue for me that I feel very strongly about and which puts me well outside the mainstream of the human rights community, I think that the great majority of these elites would declare themselves to be fully in favour of human rights, because they define human rights as the right to political participation, the right not to be tortured, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and so on. Of course, those are the rights that they enjoy, that they value, and human rights groups spend a lot of time doing extremely important work upholding those rights. But as long as they ignore the consequences of extreme inequality, as long as they don't deal with what we call economic and social rights as human rights, then they are essentially contributing to the maintenance of the status quo.


PETER MARES

So the spin-off effects of high levels of inequality are that people's rights are denied, so they may have the formal right to vote, they may have certain civil rights enshrined in law, but in reality either their ability to exercise their rights or their other kinds of fundamental rights like their right to health and education and housing will be denied.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right.


PETER MARES

Is there something else here too, which is that the idea of extreme inequality in itself, the idea that some people would have vast amounts of wealth and others very little, is in itself an affront to human dignity?


PHILIP ALSTON

Strangely enough, that's a difficult one for me. I think there will always be people who are extremely wealthy; I would maybe even call it obscenely wealthy, but the question is whether that level of obscenity is itself problematic and if you like, unacceptable. I don't know that we can approach it from that end. I think we need to approach it from the other end. What is unacceptable is that in societies that are very rich and which are dominated by people with obscene wealth, we are not undertaking any basic redistribution. We are not putting in place a taxation system that ensures that a government can provide basic services, comprehensively, and that the government can provide basic social protection for everyone, the enjoyment of what I'd call economic and social rights.


PETER MARES

So tax is a human rights issue?


PHILIP ALSTON

Tax is absolutely central to human rights. Tax is actually where so many human rights decision are made: who's going to get what part of the pie, what parts of the population are going to be neglected, what parts of the population are going to be privileged. It's all in the budget.


PETER MARES

I'm Peter Mares. I'm speaking with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, and you're listening to Up Close. Philip Alston, let's look at a case study if we can of the World Bank. The World Bank, the most important I suppose development institution in the world arguably, you've described it as a human rights-free zone. Why do you describe the World Bank in those terms?


PHILIP ALSTON

Well, the World Bank is a great anomaly. First of all, it is the most important development institution in the world, particularly when one is looking at the struggle against extreme poverty. It styles itself that way.


PETER MARES

Part of its mandate is to deal with poverty.


PHILIP ALSTON

That's what it says it's all about is the fight against extreme poverty. It does a lot of studies, because the bank has
an extraordinarily talented staff, a very large staff, mainly in Washington DC. They churn out more in-depth analyses of what we call development issues than any other body, by a mile. Many of the studies will say that rights-type issues are central; that if you want to empower women, for example, the only way to tackle gender inequality is to ensure that women enjoy rights, and they will list all of the rights. Some of them are political rights; women need to be able to vote, they need to able to participate in decisions, women need to be able to speak out, women need to access jobs, women need to have the right to open a bank account, the right to own land, the right to inherit. It's all about rights. When the World Bank starts to operationalise any of this, it basically has a prohibition on references to human rights. It will not refer to the obligations that states have undertaken.


PETER MARES

Obligations in terms of international conventions like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, that sort of thing?


PHILIP ALSTON

Right. Or to take the easier example in a way, there is a UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. That has been signed onto by the vast majority of countries in the world, the vast majority of those in which the World Bank operates.


PETER MARES

But the World Bank won't say to a country look, you're not living up to the obligations you've signed up to?


PHILIP ALSTON

Exactly. My argument would be that we shouldn't be focusing on asking the World Bank to refuse to work with a state that has a problem with gender equality, but in its work with that country it should be saying listen, you guys have accepted these objectives, we think that the project that you have proposed could be enhanced by ensuring that there are more women involved, by ensuring etcetera, etcetera.


PETER MARES

Why is the bank so reluctant, because you say its research arm looks at these questions, comes up with detailed analyses that talk about rights, but you say in its operational procedures it avoids them. On what basis does it not include discussion of human rights in its development projects?


PHILIP ALSTON

There's a confluence of factors. Part of it is that the bank is overwhelmingly dominated by economists and economists say look, we can only take account of things that we can measure and so on and where do rights fit in? But again, as I said, many of the studies that those same economists have carried out have discredited that sort of narrow thinking.


PETER MARES

And you can measure things like whether women are participating in education to the same extent as men. There are lots of areas where you can measure.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right, exactly. Secondly, there are certainly some powerful countries in the World Bank context - China, Saudi Arabia, a range of others - who would prefer that human rights not be brought into the equation. Thirdly, there is a legal analysis which the bank uses to justify itself, and that is that its constitution, its so-called articles of agreement, say that the bank shall only take account of economic considerations and that political considerations are prohibited.


PETER MARES

So it's not allowed to interfere in the political affairs of any nation state.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right. So the oddity is that the bank believes that it can tackle corruption, that it can look at the functioning of justice systems, that it can even deal in some ways with the military and others, but it can't deal with human rights because they, almost alone, are political.


PETER MARES

The extreme example of this of course would have been in the apartheid era in South Africa where most UN agencies would have said well no, we can't cooperate with South Africa on this or that issue because of apartheid. But the World Bank said no, if we were to take a stand on apartheid that would be to interfere in the political affairs of South Africa.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right. And of course, the reality is that the bank is actually still traumatised by the debates and the fights that took place in that era. The problem that I have is that I understand the bank not wanting to take a sanctions approach to human rights.


PETER MARES

That is saying we won't lend to you until you fix this problem.


PHILIP ALSTON

Until you get your human rights house in order. I don't think that's viable.


PETER MARES

Because you wouldn't lend to anyone?


PHILIP ALSTON

Exactly. I'm not sure Australia would get a loan, I'm afraid. I think that basically all of the countries in which the bank operates has a range of human rights problems. What the bank needs to do is not to take that negative sanctions approach but a positive approach saying okay, we're prepared particularly to put money into projects that will address human rights problems, and whatever we do, even if it's just building a dam or some other infrastructure project, we want to make sure that in doing that, human rights are respected.


PETER MARES

So it's much more a project-by-project approach, is that what you mean when you say you're not…


PHILIP ALSTON

Well…


PETER MARES

Because the bank has been involved in sanctions again recently. There was a case I think involving Uganda where Uganda brought in draconian laws against homosexuality and the World Bank then withdrew funding for a particular project because of those laws.


PHILIP ALSTON

Right, and for me, that's a huge problem. The current President of the World Bank, an American medical doctor named Jim Kim, has been at the forefront in resisting the idea that the bank should engage with human rights. He has been completely opposed to this. Then, when huge political pressure was generated in response to developments in Uganda, where the Ugandan Government passed legislation that provided for draconian punishments for any LGBT person, the bank pioneered - with the lead taken by the President Jim Kim, said this is really unacceptable; this crosses a line. We are going to withhold a loan of I think it was $80 million to the Ugandan health system. The President made it very clear that this was in disapproval of the LGBT policy.


PETER MARES

The discriminatory policy against gays and lesbians?


PHILIP ALSTON

Yes. Of course, anyone who cares about gay and lesbian rights would quite appropriately say well, absolutely, it's a good policy and I agree, that sort of discrimination is completely unacceptable. But it's impossible for the bank to say we don't deal with human rights anywhere in the world, we don't care about discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, we don't care about discrimination on the grounds of gender, but whoa, if it's gay and lesbian, we're actually going to withhold our loan.


PETER MARES

So an inconsistent and arbitrary approach it becomes.


PHILIP ALSTON

Exactly. It's the arbitrariness, there's no policy spelled out in advance, it's applied against one particular country, it's not a comprehensive policy, and it just sits on its own in an island. The bad news from my point of view is that of course it discredits the basic proposition that the bank should be human rights conscious, because people sit back and say whoa, look what this means in practice.


PETER MARES

So what would it look like in practice if the World Bank was human rights conscious in the way in which you would like to see it?


PHILIP ALSTON

I've written a lengthy report on this but I think that the most important step is for the bank to actually sit down and talk about these things; in other words, what are the areas where it could best make a difference, what are the areas in which it shouldn't go? I'm not suggesting that the bank should be transformed into a human rights agency but I am saying that as the single most important development actor in the world it should be helping countries who want to improve their human rights situation in different ways and it should be making sure that its own projects don't violate human rights and where possible can be adjusted to enhance them. It's not a simple recipe; it's one that the bank needs to work out, but I don't think it's at all difficult in fact to arrive at a policy which would be vastly more satisfactory, and most importantly, would lead to far better results than the bank is currently getting.


PETER MARES

So we're saying the World Bank as a development agency should be human rights conscious, should have human rights as part of its mandate. Would you say the same thing about human rights organisations, so let's say Amnesty International or indeed the United Nations Human Rights Committee, that they need to have a development agenda or an economic agenda, as in an anti-poverty agenda as part of their concern about rights?


PHILIP ALSTON

You began our discussion by saying that when we think about human rights we normally think about the right to vote or the right not to be tortured or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all of the treaties that have followed recognise two sets of rights: civil and political rights on one hand; economic, social and cultural rights on the other. What's happened is that the main actors in the international human rights arena have really ignored economic, social and cultural rights, and so that means that they are promoting and pursuing an agenda which in my view is one-sided, because it was a package.

I don't think you enjoy your full set of human rights if you only have civil and political rights; I think we need to make sure that the other half of the equation is equally addressed. But a lot of the big organisations - Human Rights Watch struggled for many years; it now is at the stage where it's got a few projects in the field of economic and social rights but it's never really come to grips with these rights. They are absolutely not central to anything that it does. Amnesty International, while it's gone further rhetorically, has actually done a very bad job of coming to grips with economic and social rights. And so I think these organisations are then promoting an overall picture of human rights which is quite distorted, and that's problematic.


PETER MARES

Some people would be very wary here though that when you propose giving social, economic and cultural rights the same prominence as civil and political rights, because they'd say this is the language that the Chinese, this is the language that Singapore uses. They say look, don't get so upset about the fact that we've got a one-party state or you can't vote or whatever, because look, we're delivering economically and socially. So we're delivering in this area, that's the fundamental needs of human beings. The democracy stuff can come later.


PHILIP ALSTON

I totally agree that if one were to focus solely on economic and social rights, it's a one-sided approach and it's not acceptable. But in fact, contrary to the arguments that you bring up, what we're actually doing is the opposite. We're focusing on one set of rights and saying don't worry, look, they will take care of themselves, eventually.


PETER MARES

The market will sort out the economic stuff.


PHILIP ALSTON

Exactly, and the market isn't doing that.


PETER MARES

SO what would a human rights oriented approach to economic development look like, or what would a economically-informed, an economic rights approach to human rights look like? If we could properly integrate these two things, what would we be trying to achieve, do you think?


PHILIP ALSTON

If we take a human rights approach I think we need to separate out rights from development. Often when I talk, even to governments and others, about social rights, they will immediately say yeah, yeah, yeah, we have a development project in X region. I'll say well, that's great, it's nice that you have a school feeding program or you've got a program for lactating mothers or you're building a well somewhere, that's lovely, but it doesn’t mean that it's based on economic and social rights. Let me give you an example: if you take something simple, which we in the West actually pretty much take for granted, education. You can say that we have a lot of education policies so we're going to put more money into schools, we're going to build this and that.

It's very different if you say we have a right to education policy, because a right to education policy takes off from the point that every person in the society has that right to education, and your starting point in a sense is how do you make sure that everyone gets it? You're not looking at the overall education system. If you come in and say well, you know, we need to become a smart country so we're going to put a lot of our money into tertiary education, better universities, better research. That's great, I'm all in favour of that, but if you haven’t also ensured that the kid in the poor village doesn’t have access to a decent school, you certainly don't have a right to education policy. You have what I'd present as a skewed policy and one that in fact neglects the basic rights of people.


PETER MARES

So you would add then a right to health care, a right to housing, a right to work, those things?


PHILIP ALSTON

Yes, and what's then got to be done is that countries have to work out for themselves what that means. If I come to a country like Australia and say so there should be a right to housing here, you'll find a lot of conservatives and others saying whoa, hang on, we can't afford to give a house to everyone, especially those lazy do-nothing loafers who never contribute to the wealth of the society. The answer is no, you're right, it's not a question of giving housing to anyone, it's a question of making sure that you have a program and policies which ensure that anyone who really doesn’t have access to minimum housing to their basic needs in terms of shelter and housing, will be able to find some solution and that we do that systematically. That we don't have significant numbers of people who are told look, there are waiting lists for government housing and by 2027 you'll be in luck. That's not a decent society. We need to make sure that we set our own benchmarks under the rubric of a right to housing and we then hold the government to account for meeting those benchmarks.


PETER MARES

How much traction are your ideas getting? Because it does suggest a refocusing both of our approach to human rights and of our approach to economic development.


PHILIP ALSTON

Well, I'm in a strange position I have to admit, because on the one hand what I am doing is saying listen, this has all been agreed, it was agreed back in 1948. These rights were accepted, a country like Australia, country like China, they're all parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. They go internationally, they say we believe in these rights, they're very important and you should be doing them, other country. But the truth or the reality, as I said, is that most countries, including Australia, are not really taking these rights seriously domestically and I think the big challenge is for human rights groups in particular to start reorienting their work so that they include economic and social rights, not that they replace their traditional focus on civil and political rights, and I think it's very beneficial if a lot of the actors in the social justice area also start making use of a rights-type approach.


PETER MARES

Philip Alston, thank you very much for joining us on Up Close.


PHILIP ALSTON

My pleasure. Thank you.


PETER MARES

Philip Alston is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and the John Norton Pomeroy Professor in Law at New York University. His reports are published on the Special Rapporteurs official UN web page; you'll find the link on the Up Close website.

Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia, and this episode was recorded on 29 June 2016. It was produced by Eric van Bemmel with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. I'm Peter Mares, thanks for listening; we hope you can join us again soon.


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VOICEOVER

You've been listening to Up Close. For more information, visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook. Copyright 2016, The University of Melbourne.


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