Human Rights

OWID presents work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the original data source. This entry can be cited as:

Max Roser (2017) – ‘Human Rights’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/human-rights/ [Online Resource]

Human rights describe moral norms or moral standards which are understood as inalienable fundamental rights of every human person. Human rights encompass a wide variety of rights including right to a fair trial, protection of the physical integrity, protection against enslavement, the right to free speech, the right to education.

The protection of human rights is certainly one of the most important aspects of development. Unfortunately it receives much less attention than other aspects, presumably also because it is so very hard to measure.: If one is interested in empirically studying the protection of human rights it is not enough to count countries that ratify human rights treaties. Instead the quantitative study of human rights aims to capture whether or not certain human rights are protected in practice.

# Empirical View

# Protection from political repression and violations of “physical integrity rights”

The problem – ethically you want to increase the standards by which we assess human rights violations over time, but this poses a problem for measurement: One of the fundamental drivers  to reach the aim of protecting human rights is the increasing recognition of the many dimensions in which individual rights are violated. It is therefore crucial to change the standards of human rights protection if you want to improve human rights protection. From an ethical perspective it makes sense to raise the standards of human right protections if your aim is to abolish more and more repressive practices by which governments abuse the human rights of their citizens.

However, from a measurement perspective raising the standards by which we evaluate whether human rights are protected poses a problem. This is because changing the standards for what constitutes human rights violations makes it impossible to compare human rights protection over time.

The solution – correct for changing standards of accountability: In a landmark paper – Fariss (2014)1 – the political scientist Christopher J. Fariss investigated whether the standards by which human rights organizatios measure the protection of human rights have indeed changed over time.

Fariss’ assessment of the protection of human rights focusses on the protection of the physical integrity of citizens. He aims to measure how a government protects the physical integrity takes into account torture, government killing, political imprisonment, extrajudicial executions, mass killings and disappearances.

To correct for the bias introduced by changing standards in the measurement of human rights protection Fariss developed the ‘dynamic standard model’. With this model he adjusts for the bias in measurements so that human right protection measurements can be compared over time. Fariss uses available quantitative information on human rights violations and then employs statistical techniques to correct for the changing standards of human right protections.

His empirical measures of human right protection are presented in the visualisation below. You can move the slider underneath the map to see the change over time and by switching to the Chart view you can see his assessment of human rights protection country by country over time.

How to read this chart: Higher values – higher human rights scores – indicate better human rights protection.

The human rights scores represent the relative position of one country in one year relative to the average across the entire time (1949-2014) of all countries: This means, a zero score represents the average level of observed physical integrity abuses for the entire period (1949-2014). The human rights scores represent standard deviations above and below zero; as can be seen the worst and best country-years fall 2 to 3 standard deviations below or above the average.

The finding of the research: After correcting for changing standards of human right measurement Fariss concluded that globally ‘physical integrity practices have improved over time.’

This is an important finding as such, but it is particularly important also because it contradicts the unadjusted data from human right organizations, which have indicated that there has been no trend of either improving or worsening human rights protection. Fariss found that ’the pattern of constant abuse found in data derived from human rights reports is not an indication of stagnating human rights practices. Instead, it reflects a systematic change in the way monitoring agencies, like Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department, encounter and interpret information about human rights abuses.’

Fariss research findings suggest that we saw no trend in human rights protection because at the same time as human right protection improved we also raised the standards by which we measure human right protection.

Viewed in the Chart view this visualisation shows the human rights protection scores for each country over time.

# Fragile States Index – Human Rights Dimension

# Economic Freedom and Press Freedom

# Lethal violence against minorities

# Decline of lynchings in the US

There is much less long-term data on the treatment of minorities than one would hope for. Records however do exist for the most extreme forms of violence such as lynchings.

The first institution to record lynchings in the USA was the Tuskegee Institute, which is now Tuskegee University. Their data is shown here (for other statistics on lynchings see Wikipedia).

# Lynchings in the United States, 1882-19692

Full screen view Download Data

The data was also mapped by the Tuskegee Institute, and this US map of lynchings by states and counties in the United States from 1900 to 1931 is described by Slate Magazine here.

# Treatment of Other Races in the USA Post-1950

# Segregationist attitudes in the United States, 1942-1997 – Pinker (2011)3

Segregationist attitudes in the United States, 1942–1997 - Pinker0

# Interracial Marriages

Anti-miscegenation laws prohibited interracial marriages in a number of countries around the world; an overview is given here.

# US map of dates of repeal of anti-miscegenation laws by state – Wikipedia4

US Map of Dates of Repeal of US Anti-Miscegenation Laws by State - Wikipedia0

# Number of Interracial Marriages

# Share married to someone of a different race/ethnicity in the USA, 1980-2008 – Pew Research5

Share married to someone from a different race:ethnicity (1980-2008) - Pew0

# Opinions on Interracial Marriage

‘Do you approve or disapprove of marriage between blacks and whites?’ Share approving black-white marriage among whites and blacks in the USA, 1958-2013 – Gallup (2013)6

Do you approve or disapprove of marriage between blacks and whites? (1958-2013) - Gallup (2013)0

Opposition to laws in the USA banning marriages between blacks and whites by year and year of birth, 1964-2000 – Fischer and Hout (2008)7

Opposition to Laws Banning Marriages Between Blacks and Whites, by Year and Year of Birth,USA (1964-2000) - Fischer and Hout (2008)0

# Race and Politics

Percent of Americans who would vote for a ‘qualified Negro’ / ‘black for President’, 1950s-2010 – GSS & Gallup Data8

Percent of Americans who Would vote for a 'qualified Negro' : 'Black for President' (1950s-2010) - GSS & Gallup Data

# Racism outside the USA

Discriminatory and affirmative action policies, 1950-2003 – Marshall and Gurr (2005)9

Trends in Political Discrimination, 1950-2003 - Marshall and Gurr (2005)

Students’ attitudes towards equal rights for ethnic minorities by level of civic knowledge, 2009 – OECD (2012)10

Students’ attitudes towards equal rights for ethnic minorities (2009), by level of civic knowledge - OECD (2012)0

# Correlates, Determinants, & Consequences

# Prosperity is correlated with better human rights protection

The chart below plots the level of GDP per capita against the Human Rights Protection Score from Schnakenberg and Fariss. We see that more prosperous countries tend to protect human rights better. Some resource rich economies – Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait, Equatorial-Guinea and others – are outliers which are both rich and have low human rights protection scores. The countries with the lowest human rights protection scores are also poor economies.

# Cascade of Rights

# Use of the phrases ‘civil rights’, ‘women’s rights’, ‘children’s rights’, ‘gay rights’ and ‘animal rights’ in English-language books, 1900-2008 – Google Ngram11

Cascade of Rights in English-language Books - Google Ngram0

# Shifting social views on homosexuality, women and race in the USA (in %), 1987-2012 – Pew Research12
Shifting Social Values on Homosexuality, Women, Race in the USA (1987-2012) - PewResearch0

# Social values correlation: gender equality scale and approval of homosexuality for select countries, 1995-2001 – Norris and Inglehart (2004)13

Social Values Correlation Gender Equality Scale & Approval of Homosexuality for a number of countries (1995-2001) - Norris and Inglehart (2004)0

# Data Sources

# World Values Survey
  • Data: Survey answers to questions about various social values
  • Geographical coverage: Almost 100 countries
  • Time span: 1981 to present
  • Available at: Online here
# European Values Survey
  • Data: Survey answers to questions about various social values
  • Geographical coverage: 47 European countries and regions
  • Time span: 1981-2008
  • Available at: Online here
# Human Rights Protection Scores
  • Data: This assessment of the protection of human rights focusses on the protection of the physical integrity of citizens. He aims to measure how a government protects the physical integrity takes into account torture, government killing, political imprisonment, extrajudicial executions, mass killings and disappearances.
  • Geographical coverage: Global by country
  • Time span: 1949 to 2014
  • Available at: www.humanrightsscores.org
  • produced by Christopher Farris and Keith Schnakenberg.
    Published in: Christopher J. Fariss. 2014. Respect for Human Rights has Improved Over Time: Modeling the Changing Standard of Accountability. American Political Science Review 108(2):297-318 (May 2014).

    – Supplementary Materials: Keith Schnakenberg and Christopher J. Fariss. 2014. Dynamic Patterns of Human Rights Practices. Political Science Research and Methods 2(1):1-31 (April 2014).


The Minorities at Risk project tracks 283 politically active ethnic groups throughout the world from 1945 to the present. The website is here.