Washington - In recent years, UN officials accused the Obama administration of failing to address police brutality and sexual assault in the military. After a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, the UN team tasked with monitoring the implementation of the global convention against discrimination called on high-level U.S. politicians and public officials to unequivocally reject racial hate speech. Also last year, the world body called President Donald Trump's attacks on the media "dangerous."
Now, a top human rights investigator is criticising the United States for failing the poor.
Philip Alston, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has spent the past several months visiting impoverished communities across the United States. In one visit to Alabama, he met a family struggling to maintain their home on an income of $958 (about R12 000) a month.
On the day of his visit, he said, sewage was visible inches from the family's house - a reflection of their county's failing infrastructure - and mildew and mold were growing inside. Alston said he had never seen sewage problems like it in the developed world.
"There is a human right for people to live decently," he said at the time, according to AL.com, an Alabama news outlet.
Alston, a New York University law professor, also paid visits to slum areas in downtown Los Angeles and Puerto Rico.
Now, ahead of a presentation to the UN later this month, he is criticising the Trump administration for gutting the United States' safety net by slashing welfare benefits and access to health insurance.
"If food stamps and access to Medicaid are removed, and housing subsidies cut, then the effect on people living on the margins will be drastic," he told the Guardian, saying the loss of those protections would lead to "severe deprivation."
Alston also lambasted the administration over its recent tax cut, saying that legislation will offer "financial windfalls" to the rich and large corporations, leading to even more inequality.
The government should think harder about how to help those in need rather than "punishing and imprisoning the poor," he said.
"The policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned, rather than a right of citizenship," Alston said.
About 41 million Americans live in poverty, according to government data, about 12.7 percent of the population. One in three of those are children. The United States has one of the highest youth poverty rates in the developed world.
Critics of Alston point out that those statistics are from 2016, before Trump took office. On Twitter, Alston explained his reasoning this way:
"...The poverty figures for 2017 won't be published until Sept 2018. Poverty is a structural problem, but I strongly believe, backed up by extensive evidence, that a 1.5 trillion tax cut for the rich and the hollowing out of welfare benefits, will make things worse, not great."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters. A US official in Geneva disputed Alston's claims, saying that "the Trump Administration has made it a priority to provide economic opportunity for all Americans."