On June 22, Philip G. Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland his final report criticizing certain U.S. poverty policies. It immediately was condemned by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley with a prompt retort by Mr. Alston. We will examine these developments and then analyze this controversy.
Special Rapporteur’s Report on U.S.
In his oral summary of the report, the Special Rapporteur made the following overall findings:
- “[T]he combination of extreme inequality and extreme poverty generally create ideal conditions for small elites to trample on the human rights of minorities, and sometimes even of majorities. The [U.S.] has the highest income inequality in the Western world, and this can only be made worse by the massive new tax cuts overwhelmingly benefiting the wealthy. At the other end of the spectrum, 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 millions of those live in extreme poverty. In addition, vast numbers of middle class Americans are perched on the edge, with 40% of the adult population saying they would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense.”
- “In response, the Trump administration has pursued a welfare policy that consists primarily of (i) steadily diminishing the number of Americans with health insurance (‘Obamacare’); (ii) stigmatizing those receiving government benefits by arguing that most of them could and should work, despite evidence to the contrary; and (iii) adding ever more restrictive conditions to social safety net protections such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, and cash transfers, each of which will push millions off existing benefits.”
- “My report demonstrates that growing inequality, and widespread poverty which afflicts almost one child out of every five, has deeply negative implications for the enjoyment of civil and political rights by many millions of Americans. I document the ways in which democracy is being undermined, the poor and homeless are being criminalized for being poor, and the criminal justice system is being privatized in ways that work well for the rich but that seriously disadvantage the poor. Underlying all of these developments is persistent and chronic racial bias. That bias also helps to explain the abysmal situation in which the people of Puerto Rico find themselves. It is the poorest non-state in the Union, without a vote in Congress, at the mercy of an unelected and omnipotent oversight board, and suffering from record poverty levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.”
- In many cities and counties, “state and county taxes are capped; public budgets are slashed; governments are left without essential resources; they instruct their police departments to impose and collect more fines to fund the general budget; these fines fall overwhelmingly upon the poor; the victims cannot pay the fines and so additional penalties and fees accumulate; most scrimp and pay but some default and are imprisoned; when they are in prison their economic and family situations collapse; and when they emerge from prison they are even less unemployable because they have a conviction.”
Based upon these finding, the Special Rapporteur made these recommendations for the U.S.: (1) “acknowledge that America’s proudest achievement –a vibrant democracy – is in peril unless steps are taken to restore the fabric from which it was crafted, including the adage that ‘all are created equal.’” (2) “Stop irrationally demonizing taxation and begin exploring how reasonable taxes can dramatically increase the social well-being of Americans and the country’s economic competitiveness.” (3) Provide “universal healthcare [that] . . . would rescue millions from misery, save money on emergency care, increase employment, and generate a healthier and more productive workforce.”
Ambassador Haley’s Criticism of the Report
On June 21 (the day before the official release of the report), Ambassador Haley in a letter to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Ind., VT), said. “ I am deeply disappointed that the Special Rapporteur used his platform to make misleading and politically motivated statements about American domestic policy issues. Regrettably, his report is an all too common example of the misplaced priorities and poor use of funds proven to be rampant throughout the UN system. The report categorically misstated the progress the [U.S.] has made in addressing poverty and purposely used misleading facts and figures in its biased reporting.”
“It is patently ridiculous for the [U.N.] to examine poverty in America. In our country, the President, Members of Congress, Governors, Mayors, and City Council members actively engage on poverty issues every day. Compare that to the many countries around the world, whose governments knowingly abuse human rights and cause pain and suffering.”
“Rather than using his voice to shine a light on those vulnerable populations [in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo], and so many others, the Special Rapporteur wasted the UN’s time and resources, deflecting attention from the world’ s worst human rights abusers and focusing instead on the wealthiest and freest country in the world.”
U.S. Mission to Geneva’s Criticism
“The right to property, the right to pursue one’s own livelihood, and the right of free association are core economic and social rights by any reasonable definition, and have been core rights of the United States since its founding. The world knows that the U.S. economy is the largest, the most influential, and the most innovative on the planet.”
“Indeed, the U.S. is entering a new era of economic growth and prosperity. Strong gross domestic product growth and increasing investment have already created 3.4 million new jobs, brought 900,000 workers off the sidelines since the President took office, and lowered unemployment to its lowest point in nearly 50 years. The administration is fighting for American jobs and American workers, and standing strong with those that are standing strong for a more prosperous American economy. Sadly, Mr. Alston’s report does not give due credit to current policies enacted by this administration to spur economic growth and the prosperity it brings for all Americans.”
“We note that U.S. federal, state, and local governments guarantee emergency health care, a right to equal access to education, pursue policies that promote access to food, and support the need to promote, protect, and respect human rights in carrying out housing policies. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies support communities that establish centralized or coordinated assessment systems, emphasizing that coordinated entry processes to ensure all people experiencing a housing crisis in a community have fair and equal access and are connected to available housing and related assistance based on their strengths and needs. Across the nation, local homelessness provider organizations under a consortium called “Continuums of Care” support persons in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs as well as those living unsheltered on the streets through grants providing critically needed support to local programs on the front lines of serving individuals and families experiencing homelessness. In January of this year, the ‘Continuums of Care’ provided a record $2 billion to support more than 7,300 local homeless assistance programs across the nation. There is also robust funding for programs such as Emergency Shelter Grants and other programs like Community Development Block Grants that can be used to assist homeless. This U.S. administration stands shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners to support real housing solutions for those who may otherwise be living in our shelters or on our streets.”
“Furthermore, the [U.S.] has robust legal protections to prohibit discrimination in the enjoyment of rights that are provided by domestic law. For example, in the area of housing, HUD actively monitors and enforces laws prohibiting discrimination. In 2016, HUD, along with its state and local partners, investigated more than 8,300 housing discrimination complaints and obtained over $25.2 million in compensation; through its Fair Housing Assistance Program, HUD paid state and local government partners more than $24.6 million to support local enforcement activities and outreach activities. That same year, HUD also awarded through its Fair Housing Initiatives Program $38 million in grants to 155 organizations for private enforcement to prevent or eliminate discriminatory housing practices and for educational initiatives to inform individuals of their rights and responsibilities.”
“It is regrettable that the Special Rapporteur, while acknowledging that the political status of Puerto Rico is beyond his mandate, nevertheless chose to opine on the matte. Puerto Rico is a self-governing territory of the United States that achieved self-determination in 1952. In successive referenda, the residents of Puerto Rico have made the democratic choice to maintain the island’s current status or to pursue statehood, with a very small fraction opting for independence. Like the states of our federal system, the vast majority of Puerto Rico’s affairs are governed by a popularly elected governor and legislature, and disputes are settled by Puerto Rico’s independent judiciary. It is baseless to argue, as the Special Rapporteur does, that Puerto Rico “is no longer a self-governing territory” when in fact its residents enjoy and exercise extensive democratic rights. Furthermore, the U.S. administration is awarding over $18 billion in disaster recovery and mitigation funds to Puerto Rico, through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery Program.”
“Accusations that the [U.S.] shows ‘contempt and hatred’ for the poor, including accusations of a criminal justice system designed to keep low income persons in poverty while generating public revenue, are inaccurate, inflammatory, and irresponsible. The U.S. funds large public assistance programs designed to help low-income Americans, including $565.5 billion for Medicaid, $63 billion for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and $42.5 billion for housing assistance programs. In fact, more than $1 trillion dollars in means-tested benefits are provided to the poor annually by federal and state governments. Based on some measures of consumption, poverty is down by 77 percent since 1980. Recent studies using the Consumer Expenditure Survey suggest that only 175 of 222,170 surveyed American households reported spending less than an extreme poverty threshold figure of $4.00 a day, which implies that there are only approximately 250,000 persons in “extreme poverty” circumstances, rather than the exaggerated figure cited by the Special Rapporteur. Regardless, any number of Americans with this severe level of economic difficulties should not be ignored, and a stronger focus of the Special Rapporteur on the problems and remedies for this population would have been welcome.”
Special Rapporteur’s Response
“The suggestion that this Council should only consist of rights-respecting States was made long ago by the US and others, but abandoned because there are no workable criteria to determine who should qualify under such a test, and because a body composed only of self-appointed good guys would not only be tiny but would be talking unproductively among themselves. Human rights promotion requires robust engagement, not behaving like the kid who takes his football and goes home.”
“Ambassador Haley complained that the Council has done nothing about countries like Venezuela. In fact I and several other special rapporteurs reported earlier this year that ‘vast numbers of Venezuelans are starving, deprived of essential medicines, and trying to survive in a situation that is spiraling downwards with no end in sight.’ We warned of ‘an unfolding tragedy of immense proportions.’”
Moreover, “this Council has published many report detailing the situations in [Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo].” And “when [the U.S.,] one of the world’s wealthiest countries, does very little about the fact that 40 millions of its citizens live in poverty, it is entirely appropriate for the reasons to be scrutinized.”
“If this Council stands for anything, it is the principle of accountability – the preparedness of States to respond in constructive and meaningful ways to allegations that they have not honored their human rights commitments. The United States position, expressed by Ambassador Haley, [erroneously] seems to be that this Council should do far more to hold certain states to account, but that it should exempt the [U.S.] and its key allies from such accountability.”
“Ambassador Haley called my report ‘misleading and politically motivated.’ She didn’t spell out what was misleading but other stories from the same media outlet emphasized two issues.”
“The first is that my report uses official data from 2016, before President Trump came to office. That is true, for the simple reason that there will be no Census Bureau data on the Trump era until September this year. But these data provide the best available official baseline, and my report then factors in the effects of the combination of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and systematic slashing of benefits for the less well-off.”
“The second criticism . . . is that the US ‘economy continues to roar to life under President Trump.’ Indeed, the US economy is currently booming, but the question is who is benefiting. Last week’s official statistics show that hourly wages for workers in “production and nonsupervisory” positions, who make up 80% of the private workforce, actually fell in 2017. Expanding employment has created many jobs with no security, no health care, and often with below-subsistence wages. The benefits of economic growth are going overwhelmingly to the wealthy. Average pre-tax national income per adult in the US has stagnated at $16,000 since 1980 for the bottom 50% of the income distribution, while it has really boomed for the top 1%, a trajectory that has been quite different from that in most European countries. Even the IMF has warned that in the US “prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy”. In other words, the American dream of mobility, is turning into the American illusion, in which the rich get ever richer, and the middle classes don’t move.”
U.S. Withdrawal from U.N. Human Rights Council
As reported in a prior post, on June 19, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, and on June 22, a spokesman for Ambassador Haley said that the Alston report had nothing to do with that decision. However, when Alston arrived in the U.S. last year, as noted above, he recently said, “A senior official said . . .my report could be a factor in whether the U.S. decided or not to stay in the council. I think I was being sent a message.”
There are many reasons why Ambassador Haley’s criticism of this report is unwarranted. Here are some.
First, the U.S. in June 2017 apparently joined other Council members in approving the resolution extending the mandate for the Special Rapporteur to, among other things, “(a) Further examine the relationship between the enjoyment of human rights and extreme poverty; [and] (b) Identify alternative approaches to the removal of all obstacles, including institutional ones, at the regional, national and international, public, corporate and societal levels, to the full enjoyment of human rights for all people living in extreme poverty.” That resolution also called “upon all Governments to cooperate with and assist the independent expert in his or her task, to supply all necessary information requested by him or her and to give serious consideration to responding favorably to the requests of the independent expert to visit their countries, to enable him or her to fulfil his or her mandate effectively.”
Second, the U.S. invited the Special Rapporteur to visit the U.S., initially by the Obama Administration and then by the Trump Administration on June 8, 2017, at a Human Rights Council meeting.
Third, on November 29, 2017, a Human Rights Council Press Release announced that the Special Rapporteur would be visiting the U.S. in December 2017 with a detailed itinerary “to examine government efforts to eradicate poverty in the country, and how they relate to US obligations under international human rights law.” Mr. Alston said, “Some might ask why a UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights would visit a country as rich as the United States. But despite great wealth in the US, there also exists great poverty and inequality.”
Fourth, on December 15, 2017, at the conclusion of his visit to the U.S., the Special Rapporteur released a statement on his visit with the following comments that later turned out to be a preview of the final report the following June:
- The U.S. is harnessing “neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology . . . to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.
- He provided some details on both the negative and positive things he had witnessed as well as statistical comparisons of the U.S. with other countries. “American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”
- The then “proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world, and will greatly increase the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans. The dramatic cuts in welfare, foreshadowed by the President and Speaker Ryan, and already beginning to be implemented by the administration, will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes.”
- The “indispensable ingredients for a set of policies designed to eliminate poverty. . . include: democratic decision-making, full employment policies, social protection for the vulnerable, a fair and effective justice system, gender and racial equality and respect for human dignity, responsible fiscal policies, and environmental justice. Currently, the United States falls far short on each of these issues” while providing further details.
Fifth, the Special Rapporteur, as of June 2018, has visited or plans to visit or has made comments about other wealthy countries (United Kingdom, and Japan), developing countries (China and Brazil) and poorer countries (Ghana and Venezuela). 
Sixth, the Special Rapporteur correctly observes that human rights obligations are imposed on every country, regardless of its wealth.
Finally, recall that Ambassador Haley first criticized human rights groups for their failure to support U.S. efforts to reform the Human Rights Council as a contributing cause for the U.S. withdrawal from the Council.
The short response to the Ambassador is Shakespeare’s line in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
 Alston is an Australian citizen and John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law, New York University and Director of NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Here is the website for the Special Rapporteur.
 U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Oral Statement by Mr. Philip Alston Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (June 22, 2018); Assoc. Press, UN Expert Slams US on Poverty, Quitting Global Rights Body, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2018).
 Haley, Letter to Sen. Sanders (June 21, 2018); Stein, Nikki Haley: ‘It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in the United States, Wash. Post (June 22, 2018).
 U.S. Mission to Geneva, Country Concerned Statement in Response to SR Alston’s report on the United States (June 22, 2018).
 U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Oral Statement by Mr. Philip Alston Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (June 22, 2018).
 Stein, ‘I think I was being sent a message’: U.S. warned U.N. official about report on poverty in America, Wash. Post (June 22, 2018).
 U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, HRC/RES/35/19 Human rights and extreme poverty (June 22, 2017); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, HRC/RES/8/11, Human rights and extreme poverty (June 18, 2008).
 U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press release, UN expert on extreme poverty and human rights to visit USA, one of the wealthiest countries in the world (Nov. 29, 2017).
 U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights* (Dec. 15, 2017); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Special Rapporteur, Press Conference, Washington, D.C. (Dec. 15, 2017).
 U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Venezuela: Dire living conditions worsening by the day, UN human rights experts warn (Feb. 9, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, China: UN experts concerned about health of jailed rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (Mar. 23, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Brazil: UN experts alarmed by killing of Rio human rights defender who decried military intervention (Mar. 26, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Japan: Benefit cuts threaten social protection of the poor, UN rights experts warn (May 24, 2018); U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Press Release, Ghana’s main economic initiatives will do little to reduce poverty, warns UN expert (June 20, 2018).