This blog was authored by Nicholas Diamond, Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center

A rich tapestry of shared norms exist regarding human rights, ranging from the right to life to the prohibition on torture. These norms flow from various international agreements and, in some instances, as a matter of custom in international law. We might also speak of them as ethical duties, rooted in a sense of common morality, that we owe to others as autonomous, self-determining individuals.

The U.S. has a complicated relationship with human rights agreements. It has been a party to some agreements, frequently with reservations that cabin its obligations, and has declined to join others. Nonetheless, shared norms abide, inviting a continual recognition of the need for all levels of government to ensure the fundamental conditions under which individuals can flourish.

In 2017, Philip Alston, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, conducted a formal visit in the U.S. to explore the interplay between poverty and human rights. His statement following this visit painted a stark picture of human rights at home. What is more, his oral statement to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June of this year further underscores a theme that demands our attention.

The Special Rapporteur’s findings

Mr. Alston’s 2017 statement followed travels in California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, DC. Although he acknowledged some positive indicators, his observations were worrying overall.

“I have seen and heard a lot over the past two weeks. I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by prescription and other drug addiction, and I met with people in the South of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death.”

Mr. Alston goes on to recount numerous shortcomings relating to civil and political rights. These include issues concerning children living in poverty, the treatment of indigenous people, healthcare, racism, and disability, among many others. His conclusion is stark: U.S. policymaking and the political process that drives it “falls far short”.

In June of this year, Mr. Alston made an oral statement before the Human Rights Council in Geneva, largely responding to Ambassador Nikki Haley’s strong criticism of his 2017 statement. His words were firm:

“I note with regret that United States Ambassador Nikki Haley has characterized [the Human Rights] Council as a cesspool and chosen to withdraw from it just days before my presentation. Speaking of cesspools, my report draws attention to those that I witnessed in Alabama as raw sewage poured into the gardens of people who could never afford to pay $30,000 for their own septic systems in an area remarkably close to the State capital.  I concluded that cesspools need to be cleaned up and governments need to act. Walking away from them in despair, as in Alabama, only compounds the problems.”

Mr. Alston’s criticism of the current Administration’s response to these issues is equally pointed. For some, the tone of his statement, as well as its apparent political bent, may be misplaced. However, the evidence that he presents cannot be dismissed. It speaks directly to the norms that undergird our shared conception of human rights.

Why language matters

There seems, to my mind, no clear language for talking about human rights at home. We  classify a lack of potable drinking water, gun violence, or proper sewage disposal, among others, as a public health problem, a political problem, or some other type of problem. They are these things, to be sure. They are also human rights problems. We might even outright dismiss the thought of looking at these issues through a human rights lens. As Ambassador Haley said of Mr. Alston’s report, “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America”.

But the evidence suggests otherwise. For example, in 2017, Mr. Alston visited Lowndes County in Alabama, which has a median household income of $27,914 and a 31.7% poverty rate. The dire situation in Lowndes County has been well-documented. It lacks a reliable sewer system and most of its residents do not have septic systems, which is representative of a broader sewage crisis in the U.S. With many residents of Lowndes County relying on homemade piping systems to shuttle waste a short distance from their homes, the waste accumulates and significant health risks follow. A year later, these problems persist.

The refusal to speak of these issues as human rights issues is not mere word choice. This mischaracterization has the effect of narrowing, not widening, the aperture of potential interventions. Take, for example, the conditions in Lowndes County. A narrow intervention might simply focus on increasing funding for the local health department. A human rights-based approach, on the other hand, would look to influence the underlying economic, social, and cultural determinants to generate an upstream change.

What is more, this approach would bring to bear a far greater spectrum of stakeholder input. While the government may hold primary responsibility for upholding human rights standards, private actors, nongovernmental entities, and the community have valuable perspectives to contribute. Unlike narrow interventions, the language of human rights–and its attendant norms–invites a broader call to action.

A broader call to action may also help to address funding concerns, which loom large. Many interventions fall on state and local authorities to initiate and sustain, yet most states currently grapple with budget shortfalls, despite gains following the recession. States could explore public-private partnership models, although many states would first need to create the statutory authority to enter into such agreements. Ultimately, human rights issues are national issues, which suggests the need for federal assistance.

Meaningful progress will first require that we collectively acknowledge Mr. Alston’s findings. Our shared human rights norms demand that we do so.