Professor Philip Alston is the current United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and an international law scholar. In our interview, Professor Alston spoke about his journey towards a career in human rights and his opinion on the state of human rights internationally, and in Australia.
Can you tell us about your academic background and why you chose to pursue a career in international law and human rights?
I wish I could say that I had chosen a career in international law and human rights, but it was more of a process of elimination of other choices that proved not to be what I really wanted to do. I studied law and commerce at Melbourne University. As my studies came to an end I dutifully applied to the large law firms for a position as an articled clerk. I was fortunate enough to get a good offer, from a firm that included my family name in it but was not related in any way. But because I was doing two degrees, many of my friends started practice a year earlier than I did and I discovered, through them, and through being the President of the short-lived Young Lawyers of Victoria, that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do in life. So I abandoned those plans and went back to law school to do an LLM. But that was at a time when there were no masters programs and I was one of a tiny handful of such students, all of whom were writing long dissertations rather than doing any coursework. While I was still finishing my thesis I was offered an irresistible opportunity to become Principal Private Secretary to a cabinet minister in the Whitlam Government. I would like to think that it was because of my wonderful credentials, but the truth is that I had got to know Gareth Evans, who was then a lecturer at Melbourne Law School, and he had put in a strong recommendation for me.
I thought politics might be a good career option, but after less than two years in Canberra the Governor-General dismissed the government and I had become disillusioned with politics after seeing it up close. On very short notice, I applied to just a handful of overseas universities to do graduate studies. I was admitted to Oxford and Berkeley, and opted for the latter. My interest was environmental law, which had been the focus of my honours thesis in my final year at Melbourne. But when I got to Berkeley it turned out that the environmental specialist was on sabbatical and the prof who was teaching it invited me to be his teaching assistant. That meant teaching some of the classes, but the focus was on a law and economics approach to pollution control, and it wasn’t at all what I wanted to study. So I turned to international law and wrote an article that was published in the Ecology Law Quarterly on the international regulation of toxic chemicals. That got me into international law, and at the same time I enrolled in a class on international human rights law. It was 1976 and Jimmy Carter was campaigning to become President, in part on a commitment to taking human rights seriously. On graduation, I opted to write a doctoral dissertation but I also got a fellowship that enabled me to spend six months interning with human rights groups in Europe. That took me to Geneva and, based on academic writing that I had started to do, I was offered a temporary job in the UN’s human rights program. I was never drawn to the bureaucracy, but I soon discovered that I was passionate about the subject matter of international human rights law.
You’ve worked extensively with the UN including as the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. Can you tell us how you began your career with the UN and what your roles entailed?
I worked as a UN official for six years and learned a lot, but knew that I wanted to be more involved and more of an advocate than an official was able to be. I continued writing during this time and was invited in 1983 to spend a year at Harvard Law School to work with Prof Clyde Ferguson to help in setting up a new human rights program there. I agreed to go in August 1984, but in the meantime Prof Ferguson died and I moved on to work with Prof Henry Steiner who became the founder of Harvard’s Human Rights Program. After a year of teaching at Harvard, I decided that an academic career was the best way for me to combine my various interests and I took a job at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in Boston, and continued teaching every year at Harvard as well. At the same time, the UN decided to establish a treaty body to monitor states obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Pera Wells, a young Australian diplomat based in New York whom I had come to know, proposed that Australia should nominate me. I was duly elected and went on to become the new Committee’s first Rapporteur. After four years, I was elected as Chairperson of the Committee and held that post for eight years. This became an exciting opportunity to shape the jurisprudence relating to social rights and the approach of the committee.
You have had an incredibly interesting and varied career. What has been your greatest professional achievement?
There are various positive developments in the human rights field for which I could claim credit, but I won’t go into detail on those. I think my main professional achievement has been to find a way in which I could be actively involved in ways that matter without sacrificing my independence. That doesn’t mean that I have never made compromises – I have made many – but it means that I have been able to remain true to the basic principles that have motivated my work.
As someone who has worked extensively in the field of human rights, what do you have to say about the current state of international rights?
It’s grim. Australia’s policy on asylum-seekers inspired tyrants and nationalists around the world to follow. The Trump Administration is seeking to undermine the International Criminal Court and discredit the UN’s human rights program. And China and Russia never miss an opportunity to pervert the overall system. But it’s important to remember two things. The first is that there have been major victories which will not be undone. The recognition of rights for women, children, indigenous peoples, those with disabilities, and many others, have resulted from initiatives in which the UN program has been central. The second is that promoting respect for human rights is always an uphill battle that can never be ‘won’. There will always be challenges and setbacks, but the only answer is to keep fighting for the values that we want to be central in the future.
What advice would you give to students and young Australians looking to pursue a career in international affairs?
First, there are still many battles to be fought to make Australia fair and just, so don’t look automatically to the international arena. Second, don’t assume that yesterday’s key issues in international affairs will be tomorrow’s. Third, there are few career ladders in this area, so be prepared to take a chance and to have faith in your own abilities. That means going where the opportunities arise and making the most of each one, however short term it might be.