New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type

Article

Comments

48 NYU J. INT’L L. & POL. __ (2016)

Abstract

Clashing theories about the impact of broad social processes on human rights have long demanded indicators that allow for comparison of human rights conditions across countries and over time. Political science and international relations scholars have developed cross-national, time-series data sets to interrogate the relationships between human rights violations and things like civil unrest (do violations cause war?), terrorism (does government repression spur radicalization?), and economic development (do rising GDPs guarantee improved rights?) using sophisticated quantitative methods. In recent years, these debates have broadened beyond the academy. In development circles, there is concern that recent achievements in areas like health and education may have come at the expense of human rights—especially democratic governance and accountability, and conversely that deficits in human rights have led to failures in human development. At the same time as these changes in the development world have taken place, scholars of human rights have reached for metrics to answer some of the most difficult questions facing those who care about rights: does international human rights law—especially as codified in international treaties—actually influence state behavior over time? In other words, do human rights treaties and covenants work? This type of analysis requires rights metrics that can be used for traditional quantitative tests such as correlation and regression analysis, and which are amenable to integration into econometric models alongside indicators gathered from the development and policy analysis worlds. These synergistic discussions have led to a renewed focus in the human rights world on standards-based measures for human rights.

This article examines several leading standards-based measures of human rights from the perspective of human rights law and practice. It is part of an emerging discussion in the literature assessing human rights data sets used in quantitative studies. Issues examined in this article include: the fit between the concepts being coded into the data sets and the legal content of the relevant rights; the choice of rights to include and exclude from the coding process; the sources used by each data set; and the methods used by the organizations responsible for authoring those sources that may have unintended impacts on the coding process and potentially the conclusions reached by analysts using standards-based measures. The article concludes that the drive to standardize, the push to quantify, and the desire to compare across time and space have produced data sets that are limited in specific respects, leading to possible distortions in the evidence base of studies relying on time-series data sets for human rights analysis. On the other hand, the measurement projects could provide important additional information for those seeking to integrate rights into development policy and practice, and they could be improved if they were brought closer into line with international human rights law.

Date of Authorship for this Version

12-2015

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