📐 Measuring human rights: facing a necessary challenge

Reliable, accessible human rights data is vital to track the human rights performance of countries worldwide. Good data can help create a world where we can better understand those rights, and fulfil them. Discussing measurement projects, new methodologies, and the limits of human rights data is therefore vital, writes Eduardo Burkle

The importance of human rights data

Given the abundance of data available today, many assume the world already has enough accurate metrics on human rights performance. However, the political sensitivity of human rights has proven a significant barrier to access. Governments often avoid producing and sharing this type of information.

States' compliance with their human rights obligations often receives a lot of attention. But there is still much discussion about how to measure it. At the same time, statistics and data increasingly drive political and bureaucratic decisions. This, in turn, brings some urgency to the task of ensuring the best possible data are available.

Establishing cross-national human rights measures is vital for research, advocacy, and policymaking. It can also have a direct effect on people's enjoyment of human rights. Good data allow states and actors to evaluate how well their country is performing. It also lets them make comparisons that highlight which policies and institutions are truly effective in promoting human rights.

Good human rights data does more than simply evaluate how well a country is performing – it also identifies which policies and institutions are truly effective in promoting human rights

Such context makes it crucial to arm researchers, journalists, advocates, practitioners, investors, and companies with reliable information when raising human rights issues in their countries, and around the world.

Challenges of measuring human rights

Capturing accurate human rights data is extremely important, and far from simple to accomplish. At present, most efforts to create this type of data are non-governmental and led by academia or civil society.

Early attempts at measuring human rights were criticised for focusing on physical integrity rights. These projects also faced many challenges and limitations. These included the different interpretations of the concept of human rights in different countries, debate on the extent of governments' obligations, fragmentation, lack of funding, reliability of information – and access to it.

Even in cases of measurement success, where such challenges are largely overcome, some sceptics still debate whether metrics capture the complex phenomena of human rights violations. Concerns often centre on worries that trying to measure human rights may dehumanise victims' experience by rendering their suffering as mere numbers.

Can metrics truly capture the complex phenomena of human rights violations? Or do we risk dehumanising victims' experience by rendering their suffering as mere numbers?

Of course, both qualitative and quantitative research are necessary. In fact, they complement each other. Human rights scholarship can gain tremendously from the engagement between quantitative and non-quantitative scholars. Different approaches, methods and communication among human rights scholars and datasets can only enhance our understanding of the subject.

Filling the gaps in human rights measurement

Recent efforts to fill the gaps in human rights data include the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI). In an effort to overcome the overreliance on publicly available data, HRMI co-designed a survey methodology for measuring civil and political rights. HRMI also adopted the SERF Index methodology for measuring economic and social rights.

For civil and political rights, HRMI uses a multilingual survey methodology to collect on-the-ground information from country specialists. The survey runs annually in a growing number of countries: 44 in 2022.

The expert survey also allows HRMI to collect data on the population subgroups that respondents identify as being at the greatest risk of having their rights violated in each country. This more qualitative data is collected for the eight civil and political rights in the survey, and the five economic and social rights produced using the SERF methodology.

For economic and social rights, HRMI uses the SERF Index methodology created by Sakiko Fakuda-Parr, Terra Lawson-Remer, and HRMI co-founder Susan Randolph. This measures whether countries are doing the best they can with what they have and, if not, how much more they could do. The methodology uses socioeconomic data – such as net primary school enrolment rate and adult survival rate – obtained from international databases, to measure rights enjoyment. It uses an evidence-based methodology to benchmark what is possible to achieve at different per-capita GDP levels.

A comprehensive look at human rights data

Grasping a complete picture of human rights performance is useful when checking countries in which the fulfilment of each right can be drastically different. China, for example, has high quality of life indicators. Simultaneously, however, it has one of the lowest civil and political rights scores at HRMI's Rights Tracker. By producing metrics for civil and political, economic and social rights categories, HRMI captures comprehensive data for the full range of rights listed in the International Bill of Human Rights.

China enjoys high quality of life indicators, yet HRMI's Rights Tracker gives it one of the lowest scores for civil and political rights

HRMI metrics for economic and social rights also take into account countries' different per-capita GDP levels. This makes it possible to identify when countries are using their resources effectively. Equally important, taking into account per-capita GDP also helps determine when and where a particular country could perform significantly better even without growing its income. The US, for instance, achieves only 81.3% on guaranteeing the right to health compared to what is possible at its income level.

Introducing a new series

This article is the first in a Loop series on Measuring Human Rights. We invite anyone interested in contributing to discuss the challenges and limits of methodologies for gathering human rights data.

We also welcome contributions which show the multiple ways human rights data can be useful. This includes articles using thematic case studies to show how human rights data can shed light on particular concerns. Alternatively, you might offer an overview of human rights performance focused on a recent political development in a particular country.

Robust data tracking human rights performance gives us all greater insight into policies and measures that directly affect human rights. Discussing measurement projects, new methodologies, and the challenges and limits of human rights data is an important step in creating a world where those rights can be better understood, and fulfilled.

Look out for the 📐 over the coming weeks and months to read more in our 'Measuring Human Rights' series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Eduardo Burkle
Eduardo Burkle
Human Rights Measurement Initiative

Eduardo holds an MA in Human Rights and Democratisation from the Global Campus of Human Rights.

His research interests include the transitional justice experience in Brazil, collective memory and the rise of far-right populism in contemporary Brazilian politics.

Follow him on Twitter @EduardoBurkle

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