A surprise conference honors Philip Alston’s career in human rights law

Philip Alston

On an ordinary Thursday in January, Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law, arrived at Greenberg Lounge in Vanderbilt Hall for a two-day conference on “The Struggle for Human Rights: Law, Politics, Practice,” held by the Center on Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ).

He was in for a surprise.

What Alston did not know, until he walked into the event, was that the conference had been planned in honor of his work and its impact on the law and practice of international human rights.

Currently the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Alston previously served as the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions from 2004-10. He has also served on the Independent International Commission on Kyrgyzstan in 2011 and the UN Group of Experts on Darfur 2007, and has worked at UN in other capacities, including as special adviser to the UN high commissioner for human rights on the Millennium Development Goals. At the same time, he has been influential in the field of human rights law as a scholar—having published more than 30 books and innumerable articles—and as a teacher and advisor.

The surprise conference—referred to by the planners as the “Philip Alston festschrift” (using the German word for a collection of writings contributed in honor of a scholar) or simply as “Philipfest”—was organized by a group of scholars who count Alston as a close colleague and mentor: Professor Nehal Bhuta LLM ’05 of the University of Edinburgh; Professor Florian Hoffman of Catholic Pontifical University Rio de Janeiro; Professor Sarah Knuckey of Columbia University; Professor Frédéric Mégret of McGill University; and NYU Law Professor Margaret Satterthwaite ’99, co-chair of the CHRGJ with Alston.

“Philip Alston’s ability to speak truth to power also involves his uncanny ability to find the exact right moment to use a voice that sounds not only in law but also crucially in morality,” said Satterthwaite during one panel. “This voice, because it’s built atop the scaffolding of law and takes into account the harsh realities of the world, cuts through the excuses and self-justifications of powerful actors seeking to escape scrutiny.”

Although the conference was two years in the making, at no point did Alston catch wind of the honor coming his way. “It makes me wonder if the Law School shouldn’t get into some sort of covert operations on the side,” joked Dean Trevor Morrison in his introductory remarks.

Over the course of two days, panelists including Ryan Goodman, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law; NYU Professor Sally Merry; CHRGJ Legal Director Nikki Reisch ’12; Vice Dean Benedict Kingsbury, Ida Becker Professor of Law; and José Alvarez, Herbert and Rose Rubin Professor of International Law, covered topics such as “Populism and the Ends of Human Rights”; “Human Rights in Trade and Tech”; and “Disruption, Renewal, Sufficiency.”

Serving as connective tissue between all of the panels was the critical role that Alston and his work has played across the field of human rights and international law. The conference culminated in a conversation with Alston, moderated by conference organizer Nehal Bhuta.

Follow a conversation between Philip Alston and Nehal Bhuta LLM ’05 on video:

Posted February 25, 2019