In Pibor, South Sudan, communities have been forced to flee intercommunal violence. Photo by: Isaac Billy / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — The recently launched Human Rights Measurement Initiative looks into 2019 data, providing publicly comparable insights on how 203 countries are improving or sliding in ratings against human rights indicators.

In just three years of data collection, contributing to the knowledge and monitoring of human rights, countries are already showing dramatic shifts in progress — with elections playing an important role in setting a country on a positive or negative path.

“What gets measured gets improved.”

— Anne-Marie Brook, co-founder and development lead, HRMI

In 2018, two major elections set countries on different paths — the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Brazil. DRC held elections after long delays, which saw the election of Félix Tshisekedi. The election result set the country on an upward trajectory in terms of indicators on safety from the state and civilian rights in expression and governance.

For DRC, data against these indicators still has the country rated as “bad” or “very bad” in most categories. But government participation has seen an increase to the category of “fair” from “very bad” just 12 months ago.

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Data in these categories has been collected annually since 2017 by surveying human rights experts and practitioners — currently available in 29 countries due to funding limitations. In assessing safety from the state, countries are scored on personal freedoms from arbitrary arrest, disappearance, death penalty, extrajudicial execution, and torture. On empowerment, countries are assessed on rights to assembly and association, opinion and expression, and participation in government.

Empowerment indicators overall are nearing a “fair” rating if change continues to trend positively. Safety from the state still requires dramatic change — though indicators are improving: freedom from torture, arbitrary arrest, and disappearance.

Source: HRMI 2020

“When power was transferred to the new president in early 2019, that was the first peaceful transition of power that the DRC has seen since gaining independence in 1960,” Anne-Marie Brook, co-founder and development lead at HRMI, said at the launch. “I guess the challenge now is to hold on to the improvements and further build on them despite the many challenges this country continues to face.”

In comparison, the October 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil resulted in declines in human rights supporting safety from the state and empowerment.

On safety from the state, Brazil scores lower than DRC. It is rated as “bad” or “very bad” against all indicators. In freedom from arbitrary arrest, the impact of Bolsonaro policies has seen this human right go from bad to worse. For empowerment, DRC is again the better-ranking country of the two, with a dramatic downward trend in the right to opinion and expression, seeing Brazil move from “fair” to “bad” in empowerment overall.

Source: HRMI 2020

“One of the things that is interesting to look at is if we can observe change — and I would say that [with Brazil] we have,” said K. Chad Clay, co-founder and civil and political rights metrics lead for HRMI. “At the very least it does appear that there have been some changes over the past year, and we’ll have to monitor the situation to see if they continue or the tide can be stemmed.”

Profiling human rights

In addition to rating countries on safety from the state and empowerment, HRMI also scores 87 countries for rights related to quality of life, as well as providing incomplete data profiles for 203 countries. A total of 30 groups at risk of human rights violations are profiled, including children, women and girls, indigenous populations, LGBTQI+ people, and people living with a disability.

On quality of life, data is available for 10 years from 2007 and rates the performance of governments on education, food, health, housing, and work indicators relative to its per capita income — assessing whether they are delivering rights in these areas to their full capacity. This data is collected from publicly available sources, which does not require a survey of human rights experts.

In this category, South Sudan fares poorly, rights in this category as rated as “very bad.” With limited recent data, the country has shown no improvement over the past three years.

Source: HRMI 2020

Among LMICs, West Bank and Gaza rate the highest. In education, housing and work, it rates “good” on supporting human rights — the highest rating. For food and health, it is rated as “fair”. In education, rights for females have increased from a score of 85.2% to 95.8% — with room for further improvement. Empowerment overall is on an upward trend.

Source: HRMI 2020

Despite diverse results, Thalia Kehoe Rowden, communications lead at HRMI, explained to Devex that overall human rights is on an upward trend.

“From 2007 to 2017 in low- and middle-income countries we see a very clear and steady improvement in economic and social rights across the world,” she said. “When people say that human rights are deteriorating and getting worse, our data clearly show that in this space things are steadily improving. And that’s a positive indication that we can achieve change.”

The HRMI data is freely available to download and use this year. It also includes Pacific countries and assesses their progress on safety from state and empowerment — the first region to be covered in full. And shows Niue to be a high performer.

“The Pacific does quite well in general on safety from the state,” Clay said. “The top scores are dominated by countries in the Pacific … [Through these surveys] we’re bringing these voices that have often been ignored and left out to the fore and letting them be heard.”

Future versions of the dataset hope to include new regions such as Asia, with the aim to assess further rights if funding becomes available and enable the database to become an important indicator for organizations globally to assess performance on human rights and enable change.

“What gets measured gets improved,” Brook said.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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