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 (2016) – ‘Human Rights’. Published online at Retrieved from: [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.

# 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.