Human rights describe moral norms or moral standards which are understood as inalienable fundamental rights of every human person. Human rights encompass a wide variety of rights, including but not limited to the right to a fair trial, protection of physical integrity, protection against enslavement, the right to free speech, and the right to education.

The protection of human rights is certainly one of the most important aspects of development. Nevertheless, it receives much less attention than other aspects, presumably in part because it is so very hard to measure. If one is interested in empirically studying the protection of human rights, it is not enough to count countries that ratify human rights treaties; instead, the quantitative study of human rights aims to determine whether or not certain human rights are protected in practice.

Tracking human rights abuses over time

Protection from political repression and violations of “physical integrity rights”

The problem: the standards by which we assess human rights violations increase over time, which poses a problem for measurement.

One of the fundamental drivers in the safeguarding of human rights is the recognition of new dimensions along which individual rights can be violated. From an ethical perspective, therefore, it is necessary to raise the standards of human rights if your aim is to abolish more and more oppressive practices by which individuals’ human rights can be abused.

From an empirical perspective, however, raising the standards by which we evaluate whether or not human rights are protected is problematic, because it becomes increasingly difficult to compare human rights violations over time: what constitutes an egregious violation today might have been considered common practice two-hundred years ago.

The solution: correct for changing standards of accountability.

In a landmark paper – Fariss (2014)1 – the political scientist Christopher J. Fariss investigated whether the standards by which human rights organisations measure the protection of human rights have indeed changed over time.

Fariss’ assessment of the protection of human rights focussed on the protection of the physical integrity of citizens. He aimed to measure how a government protects its citizens’ physical integrity, by taking into account torture, government killing, political imprisonment, extrajudicial executions, mass killings and disappearances.

To correct for the bias introduced by changing standards in the measurement of human rights protection, Fariss developed the ‘dynamic standard model’. In this model, he adjusted for the bias in measurements so that the protection of human rights can be compared over time. Fariss used the available data on human rights violations, then employed statistical techniques to correct for changing standards.

His empirical measurements of human right protection are presented in the visualisation here. You can move the slider underneath the map to see the change over time, and by switching to the Chart view you can see his assessment of human rights protection country-by-country over time.

How to read this chart: Higher values – higher human rights scores – indicate better human rights protection.
The human rights scores represent the relative position of one country in one specific year relative to the average of all countries across the entire period (1949-2014), which is set to zero. The human rights scores represent standard deviations above and below zero: as illustrated, the worst and best country-years fall 2 to 3 standard deviations below or above the baseline.

The finding of the research: After correcting for the shifting standards of human right measurements, Fariss concluded that globally, ‘physical integrity practices have improved over time.’

This finding is unequivocally positive, but is made all the more salient in the context of unadjusted data from human right organizations, which indicate that there has been no trend of either improving or worsening human rights protection. Fariss concluded that ‘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.’

Fariss’ research findings suggest that the reason we saw no trend in human rights protection is that as it improved, so did the standards by which we measure it.

Viewed in the Chart view this visualization shows the human rights protection scores for each country over time.

Fragile States Index – Human Rights Dimension

Dimensions of human rights

In this section

Economic Freedom

Press Freedom

Female Genital Mutilation

This map shows the share of women who have gone through partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. Data is only available for African and Middle Eastern countries.