Is the global situation of human rights improving or deteriorating? Making the case for the empirical measurement of human rights change

Commentary on the worldwide human rights situation is often characterised by assertions of an unfolding human rights crisis in much of the developing world, and back-sliding in some of the world’s major democracies. Clearly human rights violations are far too commonplace in all parts of the world, and we have a long way to go to realise the vision set out more than seventy years ago by the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But is it correct, as some would have us believe, that the global situation of human rights is worse today than it was five, ten or even fifty years ago? The short answer is: without better empirical measures of human rights performance, we do not know and, indeed, we cannot know.

Measuring human rights performance is not straightforward. Yet it is as important as it is challenging. In the context of the global human rights ‘implementation gap’ that has caught the attention of United Nations (UN) member States, and human rights organisations, professionals and advocates, this policy brief sets out the relevance of adequate human rights measurement, and considers some of the key steps that have been taken in this area over recent decades. It then introduces a new (in operation since 2015) collaborative project that aims to put in place a first truly global and comprehensive (in terms of human rights coverage) system of human rights measurement: the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI).

HRMI aims to provide empirical human rights measurement data that is useful to States, UN officials and independent experts, NGOs, researchers, journalists, and the general public. HRMI’s initial dataset includes measures for twelve human rights, including both economic and social rights (ESRs) and civil and political rights (CPRs).

HRMI employs distinct methodologies for measuring ESRs and CPRs. This comprehensive dataset, comprising thousands of individual indicators, allows users to measure State performance and the on-the-ground impact of the international human rights system; to undertake comparative analyses between States; and to monitor and understand overall human rights trends over time and across regions.