One result of human rights measurement is a spatial pattern of human rights, a pattern that of course changes over time: countries with lower or higher levels of respect for human rights show up on a world map and this world map shows a certain spatial pattern.
The current spatial pattern of human rights is, somewhat simplistically, like this: wealthy and developed “Western” countries, although by no means free from human rights violations, show on average higher levels of respect for human rights than most developing nations. This is no reason to distribute praise or blame: developed countries share responsibility for human rights violations in developing countries, and high levels of respect for certain human rights in developed countries may be partly a matter of luck or perhaps even the direct consequence of the exploitation of developing regions. It’s also the case that rights cost money, hence wealthier countries can be expected to show higher levels of respect for rights.
Just take it as a fact rather than a judgment, admittedly a stylized fact (one can argue that human rights are better protected in Italy than in the US even though the latter is much wealthier; the same is true if you compare Botswana en China). Here’s an example of one human rights index that confirms this spatial pattern:
Given this current spatial pattern, what’s our best guess about the future? The dynamics of human rights are poorly understood: unfortunately, we don’t really know which actions or events are most likely to change levels of respect for human rights, at least not in the positive sense. We know that war, genocide, authoritarian rule and poverty bring levels down, but we don’t know quite as well how to bring levels up. We assume that different types of forces may play a role:
- bottom-up forces such as popular revolts, changes in cultural practice etc.;
- top-down forces such as coups d’états, government policies, national legislation, international law, international institutions etc.;
- horizontal forces such as peer pressure among states, conditional bilateral development aid, pay-offs, military intervention, naming-and-shaming etc.
Incentives also play a role, and maybe even forces beyond human control such as climate, geography etc. However, the exact result and impact of these forces is unclear and controversial, so we don’t really know what to do and kinda grope in the dark hoping something is successful.
Given the fact that many people and many institutions actually try to do something in order to raise levels of respect for human rights, it’s indeed likely that some actions will be somewhat effective. Hence the spatial pattern of human rights may change in the future. Here are my guesses as to how it may change:
- Those areas of the world where respect for rights is already relatively high are most likely to see additional improvements. I agree that low hanging fruit is easiest to pick, and that is why we may see spectacular progress in some countries where respect is currently low: the removal of an oppressive regime can, in theory, bring rapid and large improvements in levels of respect, but in practice there are very few cases (often the overthrow of an oppressive regime is followed by civil war or a successor regime that is only slightly better or even worse). Conversely, sometimes high hanging fruit is, paradoxically, easier to pick. Countries with a reasonably high level of respect often have a history of struggle for rights as well as a culture of rights resulting from that struggle. Rights are part of the ethos of the common man. Remaining rights violations will therefore be more jarring, and existing institutions necessary to tackle them are in place. Another reason to believe that improvements in human rights will first take place in those countries that are already relatively good is the dynamic of bilateral aid: aid donors are likely to give more to countries that already have a certain level of respect, not just because donors like aid conditionality but also because of things such as the “bottomless pit syndrome”. Badly governed countries just take the aid and spend it for the rulers’ personal profit. Donors understandably don’t like this and therefore tend to give to countries that are better governed.
- Those areas of the world adjacent to areas where respect for rights is already relatively high are likely to see additional improvements. Countries tend to see rights violations in neighboring countries as more urgent than rights violations far away. The former violations can have spillover effects: a civil war in the country next door can cause refugee flows into your own country or other types of spillovers, hence you have an incentive to do something about the war. The same is true for other types of rights violations. Rights violations in a country far away don’t create the same incentives to act. Additionally, the EU and other regional organizations insist that candidate member countries – almost always adjacent countries – first respect human rights before they can become members. These candidate countries therefore have a powerful incentive to raise levels of respect, since membership is often profitable. And there are also other, non-spatial types of proximity among adjacent countries: they may share a language – or their languages may belong to the same family – or a religion. This kind of cultural proximity makes bilateral intervention more likely and more acceptable. If one of two adjacent countries has a high level of respect for human rights, it may find it easier to intervene in the other country in order to foster human rights. It may offer effective institutional assistance for instance, assistance that is more effective – because more acceptable and easier – than assistance from a country far away, “far away” both spatially and culturally. Another reason to believe that proximity plays a role: a country that exists in the proximity of other countries that perform better in the field of human rights is in direct competition with those other countries; competition for workers, international investment etc. Both workers and companies will prefer to invest in countries that are free. Hence the underperformers in a certain region will have the incentive to do better.
If these two claims are correct, then we’ll see increasing polarization among two groups of countries. Not the optimal outcome, but perhaps the most likely one. Time will tell.
More posts in this series are here.