Measuring globally, surveying locally: A new global effort to measure civil and political rights

To improve human rights conditions, you need to first measure them. How else would you know if conditions were improving, deteriorating, or staying the same? Our team is building a new measurement system, and we urgently need the help of human rights practitioners.

Existing international human rights data are already based on the work of rights advocates, researchers, and journalists. These current measurement efforts include the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, the Political Terror Scale, the Ill-Treatment and Torture Data Collection Project, and the Sub-National Analysis of Repression Project. These have all relied on the published reports of rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as those of the US State Department, to produce cross-nationally comparable data.

This reliance on the expertise of rights practitioners makes sense.

This reliance on the expertise of rights practitioners makes sense. If your goal is to produce globally comparable human rights data, using the reports of organizations working to collect this information on a country-by-country basis is an understandable approach.

Nevertheless, the use of public reports alone leaves a lot of information out, as these accounts are sometimes biased. Space, time, and resources are all at a premium for the organizations producing these reports, and they try to ensure that their public materials focus on the things most important and/or most susceptible to change.  

However, this means that there is a great deal of information collected by human rights researchers and advocates around the world that never sees the light of day.  As such, when I have spoken to human rights advocates about how we could include the best possible information in our human rights measures, I have often been told, “Why not just ask us?”  

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To build our new measurement system, HRMI needs the help of as many human rights practitioners as possible.

Good idea. Asking practitioners is precisely what my colleagues and I intend to do. The Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) is a new global effort aiming to produce cross-national human rights data across a comprehensive list of internationally recognized human rights.

For the civil and political rights component of our work, we are developing a survey designed to collect appraisals of human rights practices directly from the practitioners, advocates, researchers, and journalists actively monitoring a country’s human rights situation.  

This method provides access to the previously inaccessible information that practitioners have collected—but not included—in their annual published reports. Further, our survey of rights practitioners opens the door to additional information sources, including practitioners at regional and domestic human rights organizations that do not produce the widely available annual reports on which previous data have been based.  Finally, our approach allows for the direct calculation and reporting of uncertainty, important when dealing with clandestine, framed, and/or unevenly reported human rights abuses.

Based on HRMI’s core values of transparency, collaboration, and innovation, our pilot survey has been developed in conjunction with multiple human rights practitioners and stakeholders. To develop our survey of rights practitioners, we held a workshop at the University of Georgia earlier this year, and conducted other studies via video-conferencing software with partners worldwide.

Our survey of rights practitioners collects information on seven different civil and political rights to start, but we hope to add more rights in future iterations. For each of these rights, we collect information on the intensity and frequency of government abuse; the populations most at risk; and the degree to which non-state actors contribute to the abuse.

Using hypothetical questions to gain a better understanding of the meaning of each respondent’s answers, as well as advanced statistical techniques to combine survey data across respondents, we can provide informative, cross-nationally comparable measures of human rights practices that are also honest about the extent to which these measures are uncertain.

To build our new measurement system, we need the help of as many human rights practitioners as possible.

To begin, we are seeking nominations for 12 countries for inclusion in our pilot. We hope that these countries will represent a range of different attributes, covering a range of sizes, income levels, cultures, and degrees of political and economic openness. All 12 countries must be nominated for inclusion by human rights practitioners working on these locales.

If you are a human rights practitioner who would like to draw more attention to conditions in your country of interest, our pilot may be a valuable opportunity.

Country nominations are set to close by Wednesday, September 20. If you would like to find out how to submit a nomination, volunteer to be a respondent, or share your ideas more generally, please contact us as soon as possible using this form.