UN Publishes Guide for Measuring Human Rights

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at the end of 2012 released a new publication entitled Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation, which is available online in English and Spanish.  The Guide supports the identification of objective indicators for measuring countries’ progress in realizing human rights and came about in response to requests from UN treaty bodies for “assistance in analysing and making use of the statistical information in the State parties’ reports so as to assess their compliance with the human rights treaties they have ratified.” The Guide contains precise, measurable indicators for tracking a country’s progress, providing human rights defenders with a new tool for advocacy on specific human rights concerns.

The OHCHR emphasizes that it does not intend to “support an index to rank countries according to their human rights performance.”  Rather, the Guide aims to “articulate targets” reflecting the goals and principles enshrined in international human rights instruments and to “identify policy instruments and mechanisms” that can make the realization of human rights “more tangible and operational.”  The OHCHR sought to provide a format that is accessible and useful even to organizations without formal knowledge of human rights law.

The Guide further identifies a process by which civil society organizations can break down human rights into quantifiable components, and includes a selection of 16 rights which a panel of experts has translated into key corresponding indicators.  These selected rights include the rights to liberty and security, the right to food, and the right to be free from torture.  The measures provide a starting point from which human rights defenders can identify additional indicators for these and all other human rights.

The Guide’s Methodological Framework

The Guide defines an indicator as “specific information … that can be related to human rights norms and standards; that addresses and reflects human rights principles and concerns; and that can be used to assess and monitor the promotion and implementation of human rights.”  In developing indicators, the OHCHR critically argues that the “artificial dichotomy” between measuring civil and political rights by the frequency of violations of those rights and measuring economic, social and cultural rights by the degree of progressive realization is “neither desirable nor tenable in the face of the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights.”  As such, this new framework offers an alternative way to measure all types of human rights violations that is more precise and tailored to the specific human right at issue.

The methodology behind the creation of these indicators involved “identifying the attributes of a human right” and then developing “a cluster of indicators that unpack specific aspects of implementing the standard associated with that right.” In the Guide, these “unpacked” clusters are categorized into three types of measures: structural, process, and outcome.  Together, these categories are meant to capture States’ obligations to: respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.

Structural indicators focuses on “the nature of domestic law in relation to a specific right,” such as the right to free primary education.  Process indicators “measure duty bearers’ ongoing efforts to transform their human rights commitments into the desired results.” These could include the number of human rights complaints received on a government action or, in the context of primary education, the amount of federal funding for primary schools. Outcome indicators measure cumulative progress in the extent to which a human right is enjoyed.  An example of an outcome indicator in education would be the percentage of a population’s school-age children who are attending school.

Using the Guide: Practical Lessons and Tools for Civil Society Organizations

While the Guide identifies specific indicators for a selected set of rights, the OHCHR also recognizes that indicators must be tailored to each society, in order to be meaningful and “effective tools in human rights assessment and monitoring.” In the Guide’s Civil Society Organization Action plan, the OHCHR lays out a general implementation approach that encourages the formation of civil society working groups with experts, local stakeholders, and relevant government agency to “map … human rights standards for selected issues and identify …relevant indicators/benchmarks.” In this manner, the monitoring process should ideally be “country-owned and sufficiently decentralized, as well as inclusive for the different stakeholders to reflect their concerns.”

All indicators should rely on facts or other “objective methods of data collection and presentation” and, when possible, should draw on multiple sources so that the resulting data is “comprehensive and credible.” The Guide also notes that organizations should disaggregate indicators and data whenever feasible and useful, particularly in order to shed light on the extent of prohibited discrimination.  For example, if a country determines that 90% of school age children are attending school, it would helpful to know if the attendance rate varies substantially by gender in order to then identify discriminatory practices or other factors affecting school participation.

By translating human rights – often considered in the abstract – into “concrete indicators,” the Guide helps advance the application of “human rights standards in specific development programmes and public interventions.” Simultaneously, by linking concrete measurements to broader human rights conditions, this approach situates “local programming initiatives in a larger human rights perspective.” Finally, stronger evidence of human rights needs and progress helps civil society organizations formulate, justify and evaluate their programming activities and expenses.