Measuring Human Rights: Indicators, Expertise, and Evidence-Based Practice

Article excerpt

Recent decades have witnessed an "evidence-based" revolution. From medicine and nursing to education and economics, many fields have embraced this approach to turning knowledge into action. Evidence-based practice is closely related to the empirical turn, which has taken hold in many disciplines, including international law. (1) However, the discussion about evidence-based practice raises thorny questions when applied to the law (2)--especially areas of the law that are overtly normative, such as human rights--raising the central issue of how our knowledge of the world should relate to norm-based practice. (3)

Despite these complexities, other communities with strong normative commitments--including the humanitarian and human development fields--have increasingly embraced evidence-based practice, standards, and evaluation. Strikingly, these efforts have coincided with the uptake of human rights-based approaches in these fields. Indeed, rights-based indicators are often the main technology relied upon to integrate rights concerns into related fields. (4) Factual assessments, best practice standards, and program monitoring and evaluation in the development and humanitarian arenas now use rights-based indicators to understand a given situation, observe the effects of a particular intervention, and measure progress over time and across geographical space. (5)

Indicators are also increasingly used in the human rights field to understand the scope, dynamics, and relationships among human rights violations; to measure compliance with human rights legal norms; to measure the effectiveness of human rights law and advocacy efforts; and to guide rights-based programming in related fields. (6) Despite this turn to indicators, the question of whether human rights practitioners should embrace evidence-based practice has not been adequately addressed by human rights practitioners and theorists themselves. Instead, there has been a burgeoning emphasis on empirical methods in human rights scholarship, (7) and on the discrete issues of measurement, (8) impact, (9) and fact-finding methods for practitioners. (10) A limited number of studies by scholars--mostly in other fields--have examined human rights from the perspective of evidence-based practice. (11)

Drawing on previous work (12) and using indicators as a lens, (13) my current project considers how the human rights field might also embrace evidence-based practice, and what the impacts of such an approach might be. A turn to evidence-based practice would emphasize specific methods to identify, document, and understand human rights violations. It would require that recommendations be supported using evidence gathered through specific methods, especially quantitative and experimental approaches. It would also continue to expand the use of indicators. This project advances the argument that the creation and deployment of human rights indicators--as a manifestation of a broader turn toward evidence-based practice--is "profoundly ambiguous in its effects." (14) Among the very positive impacts of human rights indicators efforts are the embrace of population-based, quantitative, and systematic qualitative methods that can help human rights advocates know more and different things about human rights than their traditional techniques of fact-finding; the ability to access and deploy the political and cultural force of numbers; and the possibility of building human rights concerns into the very fabric of development, humanitarian practice, and even security measures undertaken by states, inter-governmental organizations, and other powerful actors.

However, the practices surrounding the creation, packaging, and use of human rights indicators have a series of unintended negative impacts as well. Some of the negative impacts stem from risks that are inherent in quantitative ways of knowing, including the existence of methods for measuring--as well as a plethora of data on--some issues or in some places, in contrast to the lack of data on other issues and in other places that are nonetheless central to human rights; the enduring and irresolvable problem of the often venal political manipulation of data; the predatory or abusive methods sometimes used to gather data; and the slippage between the concept one intends to measure and the choice of always-distant proxies--indicators. …