Measuring Human Rights (5): Some (Insurmountable?) Problems

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measuring human rights / statistics

Sherlock Holmes

If you care about human rights, it’s extremely important to measure the level of protection of human rights in different countries, as well as the level of progress or deterioration. Measurement in the social sciences is always tricky; we’re dealing with human behavior and not with sizes, volumes, speeds etc. However, measuring human rights is especially difficult.

Some examples. I talked about the so-called catch 22 of human rights measurement in this post. In order to measure whether countries respect human rights, one already needs respect for human rights. Organizations, whether international organizations or private organizations (NGOs), must have some freedom to control, to engage in fact finding, to enter countries and move around, to investigate “in situ”, to denounce etc. Victims should have the freedom to speak out and to organize themselves in pressure groups. So we assume what we want to establish.

The more violations of human rights, the more difficult it is to monitor respect for human rights. The more oppressive the regime, the harder it is to establish the nature and severity of its crimes; and the harder it is to correct the situation.

So, a country which does a very bad job protecting human rights, may not have a low score because the act of giving the country a correct score is made impossible by its government. On the other hand, a low score for human rights (or certain human rights) may not be as bad as it seems, because at least it was possible to determine a score.

Another example: suppose a country shows a large increase in the number of rapes. At first sight, this is a bad thing, and would mean giving the country a lower score on certain human rights (such as violence against women, gender discrimination etc.). But perhaps the increase in the number of rapes is simply the result of a larger number of rapes being reported to the police. And better reporting of rape may be the result of a more deeply and widely ingrained human rights culture, or, in other words, it may be the reflection of a growing consciousness of women’s rights and gender equality.

So, a deteriorating score may actually hide progress.

The same can be said of corruption or police brutality. A deteriorating score may simply be a matter of perception, a perception created by more freedom of the press.

I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I think it’s worth mentioning them. They are probably the reason why there is so little good measurement in the field of human rights, and so much anecdotal reporting.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Measuring Human Rights (7): Don’t Let Governments Make it Easy on Themselves « P.A.P. Blog – Politics, Art and Philosophy

  2. Pingback: Measuring Human Rights (9): When “Worse” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Worse” « P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.

  3. Pingback: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (16): Measuring Public Opinion in Dictatorships « P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.

  4. Pingback: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (31): Common Problems in Opinion Polls « P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.

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