Independent actors in the United Nation’s human rights division face both challenges and possibilities in holding powerful institutions accountable, Philip Alston, human rights advocate and United National official, said Thursday in his acceptance address for the 2016 Adlai Stevenson Award.
Presented by the Princeton-Trenton Area chapter of the United Nations Associations of the USA, the award is named in honor of former U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson ’22. Alston received the award for “a career of service to the global community,” according to the chapter.
Alston serves as a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. His work in this capacity has included leading international missions to assess extreme poverty, promoting human rights policy in the World Bank, lobbying Detroit to turn water back on for homes too poor to pay their bills, and advising UNICEF on children’s rights. A native of Australia, he currently teaches human rights law at New York University Law School, where he founded its Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.
Alston opened his acceptance address with a discussion of the U.N. Human Rights Council and its role in establishing accountability for governments, lawyers, and institutions that commit human rights violations.
“The real question is how, if at all, accountability can be achieved,” Alston said. “I should note that accountability is a relatively slippery term in the sense that ‘accountability’ can cover almost anything. In effect we are getting an actor to recognize that a policy is a human rights violation and to give a response in relation to that.”
Alston discussed three case studies from his experience as a UN Special Rapporteur to illustrate how accountability can be achieved; he also described the setbacks he faced in trying to hold powerful actors responsible for their abuses of human rights.
Alston spoke first of his work in reducing extrajudicial executions by the Filipino military. In anticipation of his mission, the Filipino government created a task force to resist his efforts in revealing the military’s culpability for the executions.
“In the end [the government] gave me the propaganda version, which was the notion that the vast majority of killings were committed by members of the left, the New People’s Army in particular, killing each other in disputes but making it look as if the army carried out the killings,” Alston said.
Alston persisted in his investigation, and by the end of his visit he was able to secure a highly publicized meeting with Filipino President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
“I told her, my report doesn’t hold you personally responsible but I think I’ve made the compelling case that the army is responsible for the vast majority of [the executions] and they have sought to cover them up,” Alston said. He recommended that she advise the army to stop all extrajudicial executions; as a result, the number of killings dropped by 70%.
Alston also discussed the issue of targeted drone killings by the American government. After writing a letter to American authorities describing the ways in which targeted killings are problematic, the government responded by adopting a new doctrine that in their view the U.N. Human Rights Council had no role in armed conflicts. Alston then presented a report to the United Nations on the legal issues that have arisen as a result of drone strikes. Although the United States did not officially acknowledge Alston’s report, he learned that there had been a series of internal meetings on the matter.
“It quickly became apparent that, in fact, the report had a significant impact,” Alston said.
The third case study Alston addressed was his work in holding both the United Nations and the United States governments accountable for their failures in dealing with the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti. In the aftermath of the outbreak, the United States and the United Nations decided to focus exclusively on how to deal with the outbreak going forward rather than exploring where the outbreak came from.
“The approach of not worrying about where [the outbreak] came from was deeply problematic in epidemiological terms,” Alston said. “What happened after the outbreak was exacerbated by a number of factors, but it did have one specific cause.”
Alston worked with the U.N. Secretary General to reignite discussions about the issue. His report to the United Nations on the cholera outbreak was leaked to and published in The New York Times.
“The United Nations then decided — no reference to my report — that it would adopt a new approach to Haiti and would for the first time include some form of financial support for the victims, and some sort of acknowledgment of the negligence of the U.N.,” Alston said.
“The outcome, and this is the bottom line, was remarkable in two ways, one incredibly positive and one incredibly negative. The U.N. has committed to trying to raise $400 million, some of which will go directly to the victims. They also issued an almost unprecedented apology last Friday, Dec. 1. That’s the good news and not to be underestimated. The bad news is that they, I think heavily influenced by the US government, have adopted this policy but never, ever mentioned it in public. No legal responsibility will ever be accepted in this or any other situation. And so the apology by the Secretary General was a half-apology,” Alston noted.
“The tragic thing, then, is the role played by lawyers in preventing the only outcome that would have been decent in human rights,” he said.
Alston finished his address by encouraging students to find a way to advance human rights in whichever career path they chose.
Much has been accomplished in advancing human rights, Alston said, “but there is even more to be done.”
“[Alston’s] career has consisted of advocacy for all children and their families,” Jeremy Zullow ’17 said. “His sincerity and conviction reminds us that we must not allow the progress of human rights to be rolled back.”
The lecture, which took place at 4:30 pm in Robertson Hall, was co-sponsored by Princeton-Trenton Area Chapter of the U.N. Association of the USA and the Program in Law and Public Affairs.