Measuring Human Rights (34): The Golden Age of Human Rights Ended in 1970?

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measuring human rights / statistics

The purpose of human rights measurement, as I’ve stated many times before in this blog series, is to get some idea about progress. Are human rights better protected now than they were before, or vice versa? There are different ways to measure respect for human rights, and therefore also different outcomes. However, most measurements indicate that there is some progress, at least for certain human rights.

Now, here’s something strange: if we look (again) at Google Ngrams*, then it seems as if the Golden Age of human rights ended somewhere in the 1970s:

human rights violations ngrams

Or perhaps we shouldn’t over-interpret this. It’s possible that until the 70s people had other ways of describing cruelty and oppression and that human rights only became lingua franca after 1970 (another ngram seems to confirm this).

However, I still find this rather hard to understand. Almost no mentions of human rights violations in the millions of books written before 1970, and then a steady and steep rise. After all, human rights were “invented” in the 18th century, and their seeds were planted long before that. Also, it’s not as if the last 3 of 4 decades saw a large increase in the number or gravity of human rights violations. On the contrary.

So, why the increase in mentions? Perhaps it is simply a matter of increased consciousness. Or perhaps we’re seeing the famous Tocqueville effect again: Tocqueville has famously argued that the more a society liberates itself from injustices the harder people find it to bear the remaining injustices. And the harder they find it, the more they talk about it. Vice versa, when injustice is widespread and and permanent it may feel like destiny and then there’s no use even mentioning it.

* If you don’t know what the Ngram viewer is, go here first.


  1. Another great article fillip! Regarding the steep increase in mentions of human rights violations, couldn’t it be down to the increased reporting of HR violations in the last 20 years (AKA since the invention of the internet). Since then we have seen thousands of human rights charities established and an increased focus on trying (or claiming to try) to eradicate these violations. I am not one to rant on about the power of the internet but in this case (spread knowledge of violations) I think the internets role in this is probably huge?

      • Yes, that would certainly fit well. Maybe also, in the 1970’s was when most countries were beginning to open up (for instance the true realisation of poverty in Africa became known by people in the “developed world”). This may have led writers to begin to look at the relationship between human rights and poverty etc.

  2. Pingback: Is the Human Rights Movement a Total Failure? | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

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