Audacity and Hope in the Summer of Discontent

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

We are in the summer of discontent, overwhelmed by the pandemic, civil unrest and economic hardship. In what seems ages ago, Barack Obama talked of the audacity of hope. That audacity now appears as neither audacious nor hopeful. Obama’s “Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” seem more like a nightmare than a dream. With the pandemic growing in many parts of the United States and the world, and with civil unrest increasing because of greater awareness of gross violations of human rights, that euphoria has long gone.

Where is the audacity today? Where is the hope?

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights painted a devastating picture of the global situation in his recent final report. Not content with the usual platitudes, Philip Alston told The Guardian: “Even before Covid-19, we squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impact of the pandemic.”

Alston has a most impressive record of telling it like it is. As United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2004 to 2010, he condemned the United States and other countries for their arbitrary executions. In that final report, he pointed to the U.S’s record of illegal targeted killings: “The United States has used drones and airstrikes for targeted killings in the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the operations are conducted (to the extent publicly known) by the armed forces. The US also reportedly adopted a secret policy of targeted killings soon after the attacks of 11 September 2001, pursuant to which the Government has credibly been alleged to have engaged in targeted killings in the territory of other States.”

In his final report on extreme poverty in his current role as Special Rapporteur, Alston went beyond specific country condemnation by attacking the multilateral UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs): “Rather than providing a roadmap for states to tackle the critical problems of our time, the energy surrounding the SDG process has gone into generating colourful posters and bland reports that describe the glass as one-fifth full rather than four-fifths empty.”

In addition to criticizing the UN, the NYU law professor was also dubious about the role of the private sector in reducing poverty. He said: “…multinational companies and investors draw guaranteed profits from public coffers, while poor communities are neglected and underserved.”

International institutions like the World Bank that are supposed to help alleviate poverty were not spared in Alston’s tour d’horizon. For Alston, “Even before the pandemic, 3.4 billion people, nearly half the world, lived on less than $5.50 a day. That number has barely declined since 1990.” This revelation from someone who dared to visit the United States and the United Kingdom rather than traditional impoverished Third World countries as Special Rapporteur. As he noted: “Over the past decade, the UN, world leaders and pundits have promoted a self-congratulatory message of impending victory over poverty, but almost all of these accounts rely on the World Bank’s international poverty line, which is utterly unfit for the purpose of tracking such progress.”

After reading Alston’s audacious report, one looks for glimmers of hope.

Try reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, listen to his 2012 Ted Talk or watch the 2020 movie based on the book. As a young lawyer out of Harvard Law School, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative to help the poor and wrongly condemned in the United States. Through his efforts as well as those of other lawyers who joined him, minors have been spared life sentences without parole and many wrongly condemned to the death penalty have been freed.

Stevenson wrote of the situation in the U.S. in 2014: “Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated. We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions.”

He and his colleagues have done something to alleviate that situation. Stevenson has been able to influence laws about sentencing minors through pleadings before the Supreme Court. He has been able to sensitive authorities in the South about the horrendous conditions in prisons, although much remains to be done.

What is the relation between Alston and Stevenson? Philip Alston has gone where few have dared. His reports on extrajudicial killing and extreme poverty are examples of clear-sighted, objective analyses that challenge many of the accepted paradigms. He is audacious. Bryan Stevenson has also gone where few have dared. He has taken on racism, the death penalty and prison conditions mostly in the South of the United States where violations of basic human rights have been flagrantly violated. He has given hope to thousands of prisoners as well as to young lawyers who have followed his example.

Philip Alston and Bryan Stevenson are true examples of the audacity of hope.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.