Society & Culture

Researchers create way to measure human rights

A portrait of K. Chad Clay
K. Chad Clay, an assistant professor in UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs, is co-founder of the Human Rights Measurement Initiative.

A team of researchers at the University of Georgia is using a new approach to measure how countries around the world address civil and political rights issues.

K. Chad Clay, an assistant professor in UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs, is co-founder of the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, a collaborative program among academics, human rights practitioners and nongovernmental organizations to advance human rights.

He and a team of other researchers developed several human rights metrics by conducting pilot surveys in October and November 2017 among human rights experts from 13 countries: Angola, Australia, Brazil, Fiji, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.

“The best information available on civil and political rights is the information that these human rights practitioners in the field know,” Clay said. “They’re the ones actively monitoring what’s going on in those places.”

The team hopes that this scale will assist human rights workers, policymakers and others as they try to halt abuses in countries around the world.

Clay is working with fellow UGA researchers Daniel Hill, assistant professor of international affairs, Ryan Bakker, associate professor of political science, and Amanda Murdie, professor of international affairs.

The survey measured how well the countries meet their obligations to seven civil and political rights, including the right to free expression, freedom from execution and the right to participate in government.

The survey also included questions about whether government agents commit acts of torture.

The researchers worked with individuals at several international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to find survey respondents in each country.

“We’ve learned a lot about who actually is being abused and who’s doing that abuse on the ground,” Murdie said. “This is information that we probably couldn’t have received just by looking at summary reports that NGOs make.”

Because the survey respondents were from different cultures and countries around the world, the researchers used anchoring vignettes, or hypothetical scenarios, to ensure cross-national comparability.

For example, the survey might ask a respondent about the frequency of abuse on a scale of zero to 10.

“You might ask three different people the same question,” Clay said. “They might all have the same amount of abuse in mind. But one of them might interpret that level of abuse as a five, while the others might interpret it as a three or a seven. Having each of those people answer questions about the same hypothetical scenarios gives us a lot more information about what that scale means to each person, allowing us to generate cross-nationally comparable final scores.”

The researchers said that HRMI’s work is meant to improve on pre-existing civil and political rights measures, both in terms of coverage and in usefulness for gauging how countries are meeting the needs of their people.

“People have been producing this kind of data for a long time, but no one has really been doing it with the direct involvement of human rights NGOs,” said Hill, who helped to analyze the survey responses.

The team plans to host a workshop in South Africa in the fall to get feedback from NGOs and human rights advocates around the world to improve and expand their measures.

“The grand ambition is that eventually this is a project that provides data on every single human right contained in international law,” Clay said. “We basically want to be the main source for human rights data in the world.”

Aside from the civil and political rights work being done at UGA, HRMI has other operations based at the institutions of Clay’s fellow co-founders: Anne-Marie Brook of Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, a nonprofit research institute based in New Zealand, and Susan Randolph of the University of Connecticut and the Economic & Social Rights Empowerment Initiative.