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Philip Alston

Philip G. Alston is a prominent international law scholar and human rights practitioner. He is John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University School of Law and co-Chair of the law school's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.[1] In human rights law, Alston has held a range of senior UN appointments for well over two decades, including, since 2004, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.



Alston graduated from the University of Melbourne and from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.[1]

His brother is the former Australian federal Cabinet minister and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Richard Alston.


Alston's first academic appointments were at Tufts University (1985 - 1989) and Harvard Law School (1984 - 1989). Alston was then Professor at the Australian National University (1990 - 1995), and also director of its Center for International and Public Law. He was then Professor at the European University Institute (1996 - 2001), before moving to New York University School of Law, where is the John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law.

United Nations

In human rights law, Alston has held a range of senior UN appointments for well over two decades. From 1987 to 1991 he was the first Rapporteur for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; he then chaired the Committee from 1991 to 1998.

At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights he was elected to chair the first meeting of the Presidents and Chairs of all of the international human rights courts and committees (including the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Human Rights Court, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the UN Human Rights Committee).

He was appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General in 1988 to suggest reforms to make the United Nations human rights treaty monitoring system more effective. His major reports in 1989, 1993 and 1997 provided the impetus for continuing efforts by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council to streamline and improve the rather unwieldy monitoring system.

His other United Nations appointments include Special Adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals. He was appointed to that post by Sergio Vieira de Mello, and has continued to advise successor High Commissioners, including Mary Robinson, Louise Arbour, and Navanethem Pillay.



He has been very actively involved in the field of children’s rights and the legal adviser to UNICEF throughout the period of the drafting of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. He participated in the UNICEF delegation to the drafting sessions of the Convention and continued to advise UNICEF for several years after the Convention’s adoption in 1989, especially in relation to promoting the ratification of the Convention by countries around the world. He published two major studies for UNICEF on children’s rights. The first was The Best Interests of the Child: Reconciling Culture and Human Rights (1994) and the second, with John Tobin, was Laying the Foundations for Children’s Rights, published in 2005 by UNICEF.

Special Rapporteur

Since 2004 he has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.[2] In that capacity he reports regularly to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. Since 2005, Alston has visited Nigeria, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Guatemala, Lebanon and Israel, The Central African Republic, Brazil, Afghanistan, the USA, Kenya, and Colombia in his capacity as Special Rapporteur. He issued a detailed report in each case to the relevant government and to the United Nations.

Alston's reports to the UN relating to extrajudicial executions also deal with broad thematic issues that arise in many countries, such as witchcraft and vigilante killings, national-level commissions of inquiry dealing with unlawful killings, the problem of prisoners running prisons, the importance of witness protection programs, the problem of governmental reprisals against individuals or groups who have cooperated with a UN human rights inquiry, the need to regulate the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers, shoot-to-kill policies, the relationship between human rights law and international humanitarian law, mercy killings in times of armed conflict, and the need to make military justice systems human rights compatible. With respect to the death penalty, Alston's reports have discussed the need for transparency, the unacceptability of the mandatory death penalty under international law, the definition of the ‘most serious crimes’ for which the death penalty may be imposed, the right to seek pardon or commutation of a death sentence, the juvenile death penalty.


Alston also directed a major project funded by the European Commission, which resulted in the publication of a Human Rights Agenda for the European Union for the Year 2000 and a 1999 volume of essays (The European Union and Human Rights). The Agenda has been highly influential; a great many of its detailed recommendations were subsequently implemented by the European Commission and the European Council.


Alston has written extensively on issues such as economic, social and cultural rights, United Nations institutions and procedures, labor rights, the role of non-state actors in relation to human rights, comparative bills of rights, the use of force, and human rights and development policies. He is also one of the authors of a leading textbook in the field entitled International Human Rights in Context, Law, Politics, Morals, published by Oxford University Press. A third edition was published in 2007.


  1. ^ a b New York University School of Law, Philip G. Alston
  2. ^ Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

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