Human Rights

A Human Rights Index?

I am attracted by Peter Tatchell’s argument for a human rights index, floated last week in an article on CiF:

This is why the Green party of England and Wales is advocating a UN Global Human Rights Index, as a means of measuring and ranking human rights abuses, country by country. The aim is to create a human rights league table to pressure governments to clean up their record. “Our proposal makes the case for the UN to publish an annual Global Human Rights Index, detailing the human rights performance of each and every government on the planet, displayed in a league table form,” said Dr Richard Lawson, Green party member and founder of the campaign for the Global Human Rights Index. Speaking at the launch of the index idea last year, he said: “This will enable the relative human rights standing and trends of each country to be seen at a glance. It would add pressure on the worst ranked countries to improve their human rights record.”

The current draft of the index was finalised in 2008. Over many months, I worked with Lawson to map out the rights and freedoms to be covered by the index, and how the ranking system would be calculated. What we have devised is a draft outline, open for discussion, negotiation and further refinement.Using a points system, the index measures every country, based on its compliance with a checklist of 52 human rights norms, such as whether or not it has the death penalty, torture, detention without trial, freedom of the media, the right to protest and equal rights for women and for ethnic and sexual minorities. This would enable objective comparisons between the human rights records of different countries and whether each country’s record is improving or deteriorating.

The human rights trend of nations over time would therefore be demonstrable and transparent. This would give an important early warning signal about which states are increasing their human rights violations. These countries could then be pressed by the UN to remedy the abuses and, if necessary, given assistance to do so – perhaps in the form of UN peacekeepers, in instances of ethnic or religious violence.

A good test of any such index is where it places Israel in the great scheme of things.

Israel is most certainly not a paragon of virtue when it comes to observing human rights standards.For example, its security forces have displayed a cavalier attitude to the policing of demonstrations, where on 18 occasions in the last five years, protesters have been killed. These abuses are real, and should be a matter of concern for any person with a genuine interest in the preservation and advancement of human rights.

Israel is also a country which is at war with a vicious adversary which makes no secret of its desire to slaughter its civilian population, and which prior to the construction of the “wall” or “barrier”, did all it could to advance that eliminationist goal. A distinction can, and should, be drawn between the improper denial of human rights to those engaged in peaceful democratic political activity, and the deaths of those who are killed during war or during terrorist activities, aimed at civilians. Quite how that distinction is factored into an index is, to put it mildly, a tricky question.

If you look at the Human Rights Index, you will be pleased to see that the United Kingdom finds itself at ‘Level 2’:

There is a limited amount of imprisonment for nonviolent political activity. However, few persons are affected, torture and beatings are exceptional. Political murder is rare.

I expect that reflects the occasional imprisonment of those who solicit or otherwise facilitate terrorism. Otherwise, we’d be at Level 1, no doubt.

The USA finds itself at Level 3. Sureally – twice:

There is extensive political imprisonment, or a recent history of such imprisonment. Execution or other political murders and brutality may be common. Unlimited detention, with or without a trial, for political views is accepted.

Er. I expect that’s a product of Guantanamo. And perhaps also involvement in rendition. So the US sits alongside Cuba, South Africa (three times!!), Turkmenistan, Syria, Libya, Uzbekistan, and a country called “Yemen Zambia”

Israel, of course, finds itself in Level 4, along with China, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and the West Bank and Gaza:

Civil and political rights violations have expanded to large numbers of the population. Murders, disappearances, and torture are a common part of life. In spite of its generality, on this level terror affects those who interest themselves in politics or ideas.

There is only one level below Level 5, which includes Sri Lanka, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan only.

The United Kingdom and the United States of America have done rather well in this index, all things considered. Have those killed by British and American forces been counted? Has a distinction been made between combatants and civilians? Perhaps the thinking is that dead Taliban and civilians who perish in drone attacks don’t count, because it is a war. Or perhaps they do – but these deaths are added to Afghanistan’s total, rather than the US and UK. But again, how do we explain the USA’s position in Level 3, if the US’s activities outside its borders does not “count”? I don’t know.

By contrast, I’d be surprised if those killed and imprisoned, or prevented from crossing into Israel, as a result of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza have not been added to its total. I’d expect that the thinking is that Gaza is ‘occupied’, and so counts as part of Israel. By contrast, the numerically larger number of casualties of the UK and the US’s military operations in the countries that they occupy have, perhaps, been kept out of their score. If that is so, why?

How do you distinguish between countries in which the population is so repressed and cowed, they simply do not agitate for their rights at all. Is Egypt really as bad as North Korea?

Moreover, I’d guess that countries like Syria and Libya end up doing rather well, because the human rights abuses are not as closely catalogued as those in countries which are more open to scrutiny, and where human rights organisations are less active or able to carry out their mission. That brings us onto an issue that Peter poses in his article:

At present, repressive states are dealt with in an arbitrary and ad hoc way by politicians, often through media manipulation. Iran’s regime is deservedly condemned, while there is barely a squeak of protest about the equally gross human rights violations by a western ally like Saudi Arabia.

Well, I wouldn’t say that there was ‘barely a squeak” about Saudi Arabia. Although, interestingly, Saudi Arabia seems not to make the Green Pary Human Rights Index at all! Luckily for them, nobody seems to have noticed their wholesale denial of basic rights to 50% of their population, and to all non-Salifis and non-Saudis. The 2008 cut off date would also have excluded their recent bombing of Yemen.

It isn’t only naughty Western democracies who engage in spin and manipulation in relation to human rights abuses, of course. Professor Steinberg makes the point well in a recent op ed in The Australian:

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which controls the UNHRCs agenda and chooses its officials, has no interest in opening a discussion of the systematic oppression of women or minorities in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Gaza, etc.

The past year has seen even greater co-operation between the UN and the NGOs in twisting human rights values beyond recognition. Human Rights Watch was caught attempting to raise funds from wealthy members of Saudi Arabia’s elite.

Instead of leading the campaign against the abuses imposed by the Wahabi religious police, this “watchdog” hosted a member of the Shura council at a dinner which featured more Israel-bashing and dark warnings of the power of “pro-Israel pressure groups”.

I think we’d need to look quite closely at the methodology used, before working out precisely how these odd rankings have been put together.

The idea of a Human Rights Index is not a bad one.  The multiple appearance of the same countries in the Index tables, and the surprising absence of others, is a symptom of a fairly deep sloppiness. The execution of this study has, sadly, been rather poor.

Nevertheless, there is a sensible discussion to be had about the idea of a human rights index, and of the other general principles canvassed in this report.

Why not have a go at suggesting how it might be improved?


Peter says:

“The Green Party proposal is just an idea. We have not complied an index that ranks countries according to our 52-point criterion.

The index and country rankings that are quoted on HP are based on a different model, which we cited merely for illustrative purposes, to show other attempts to create similar indexes. We are not endorsing these. They are just cited as examples, to show that compiling indexes is possible and has been down before.”