Expert Commentary

Respect for human rights has improved over time: Modeling the changing standard of accountability

2014 study published in American Political Science Review by Pennsylvania State University on how to accurately measure human rights abuses over time.

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, putting into place a collection of international treaties intended to limit repression and abuse around the globe. In the decades since the declaration’s passage, however, the world has still seen human rights atrocities committed on an immense scale. The spring of 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda that left some 800,000 people dead in a matter of months. Trials for those involved in the Cambodian genocide, which resulted in the deaths of more than 20% of the country’s population in the 1970s, remain ongoing. Even in the past few weeks, headlines describing human rights violations from Ukraine and North Korea to the United Arab Emirates and Syria have been prevalent, prompting questions about the whether the global human rights record is improving at all.

In a May 2014 paper published in American Political Science Review, “Respect for Human Rights has Improved Over Time: Modeling the Changing Standard of Accountability,” Christopher J. Fariss of Pennsylvania State University addresses this issue. (An open version of the paper is available on SSRN.) He begins by noting that despite the spread of democracy and greater monitoring of human rights abuses, “current indicators of political repression imply that human rights practices have been essentially constant over the last 35 years.”

To get a more accurate comparison of repression levels than indicated by the current model — known as the “constant standard model” — Fariss develops a “dynamic standard model” that takes into account more current data and the changing standard of what constitutes human rights violations. This in turn allows him to produce revised estimates of repression from 1949 to 2010.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Statistics indicating that the level of human rights violations has not changed significantly are misleading: “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.”
  • The data show that the level of physical repression has in fact decreased over time. However, “this change was masked in the text of the human rights documents by a confounding factor — the standard or accountability — for which researchers had not previously accounted. By accounting for this additional factor, a new picture of global repression emerges in which conditions actually improve over the period of study (1949-2010), since hitting a low point in the mid-1970s.”
  • Current human rights violations estimates are subject to instrumentation bias because the measurement tools themselves have changed over time. Specifically: (1) “Improvements in the quality and increases in the quantity of information have led to more accurate assessments of the conditions in each country over time”; (2) “Access to countries by NGOs, like Amnesty International and Human Rights First … has increased as these organizations grow and cooperate with one another”; (3) “Changes in the subjective views of what constitutes a “good” human rights record held by analysts at the monitoring agencies are anchored by the status quo, which improves as the global average of rights respect improves.”
  • Taken together, this means that “the set of expectations that monitoring agencies use to assess and document state behaviors changes over time as these monitors look harder for abuse, look in more places for abuse, and classify more acts as abuse.”
  • There is a positive relationship between respect for human rights and ratification of human rights treaties, such as the U.N. Convention Against Torture. “Results suggest that human rights protectors are more likely to ratify the treaty, that the treaty may in fact have some causal effect on human rights protection, or possibly both. Overall, these findings suggest that the treaty is not merely cover for human rights abusers.”

The author concludes by noting that this “dynamic standard model” that takes into account changing measurement tools could be applied to other areas of research, including the measurement of democracy over time.

Related reading: See the following research papers: “The Justice Cascade: Origins and Effectiveness of Prosecutions of Human Rights Violations”; and “International Socialization and the Diffusion of Human Rights Norms.”


Keywords: human rights, genocide, torture, crime, accountability, international norms, democratization

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