We Need an Index of Human Rights

December 11, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Human Rights Day is the anniversary of the signing Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948. The UDHR is one of the most important documents in human history. Drafted by representatives from many different countries and cultures, and endorsed today by all 192 member states of the United Nations, it embodies a global humanitarian consensus.

Rejecting the doctrines of cultural and moral relativism, which have been long promoted by imperialists and, more lately, by some advocates of anti-imperialism, the UDHR asserts that all peoples in all cultures are entitled to the same rights and freedoms. This globalisation of human rights is a huge advance in affirming the lives and liberties of billions of people everywhere on planet Earth.

The big problem is adherence and enforcement. The UDHR is a noble document that is often ignored and violated. Even western democracies like the UK and US fall short of its ideals. Britain has house arrest without charge, libel laws that inhibit free speech and restrictions on the right to peaceful protest near parliament. Many US states still have the death penalty and people merely suspected of terrorism have been kidnapped, tortured and detained without trial at the behest of the US government.

Other grave human rights abuses – such as religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, media censorship, rigged elections and trade union suppression – are widespread in many countries, including Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Uganda, Zimbabwe, China, Iran, Burma, Sudan, Russia, Pakistan and Iraq, to name just a few.

There is, however, no objective, transparent measure to determine a country’s conformity to, or departure from, human rights norms. We have no independent yardstick to assess which countries are the worst human rights abusers and which ones have the best human rights records.

Indeed, there is no globally-agreed check-list of what specific, concrete rights constitute human rights.

These deficiencies need to be addressed if the international community is to secure human rights progress. We need benchmarks and gold standards, against which all countries can be measured, without fear or favour.

There is no easy way to ensure that the principles of the UDHR are upheld by UN member states. But the power of publicity and moral leverage should not be under-estimated. Even tyrannies are conscious of their image and seek to avoid approbrium.

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, county by country. The aim is to create a human rights league table to pressure governments to clean up their record. See the index here:


“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 lead author, Green Party member and founder of the campaign for the Global Human Rights Index (GloHRI), Dr Richard Lawson.

Speaking at the launch of the GloHRI 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 and provide impetus for action against the most serious offenders by the International Criminal Court and other human rights bodies.

“Tragically, in the twenty-first century we are still torturing and killing our fellow human beings. One day these barbaric practices will pass into history. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an important step in that direction. We hope the Global Human Rights Index will prove to be another such step,” he said.

Since the index idea was first mooted, interest has been expressed by campaigners with World Concern, Global Action Plan to Prevent War, World Disarmament Campaign, Arms Reduction Coalition, Culture Change and the Movement for the Abolition of War. We are planning to approach the United Nations Association, the Foreign Office and the European Union.

The current draft of GloHRI was finalised in 2008. Over many months, I worked with Dr 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, negotiaton and further refinement.

Using a points system, the GloHRI index measures every country, based on its compliance with a check-list 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, equal rights for women and for ethnic and sexual minorities and so on.

The check-list aims to codify, for the first time in international law, a full list of specific human rights, as opposed to the general humanitarian principles which form the bulk of existing human rights conventions. It would apply to all countries.

This simple, accessible index would enable objective comparisons between the human rights records of different countries, and permit the identification of whether each individual country’s human rights record is, year-on-year, improving or deteriorating.

Published annually by the UN, the GloHRI index would document where each state upholds or breaches human rights; providing an incentive for all nations to improve their human rights record and ranking.

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

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.

The UN’s failure to tackle human rights-flouting nations will be harder to justify or ignore if the GloHRI index clearly ranks them as major abusers. Conversely, the unfair or excessive demonisation of a particular country will be less easy to accomplish if the index can show that it is not the worst offending state or if the index can demonstrate that the accusing states also have a less than exemplary human rights record.

The GloHRI index could be cited as evidence to justify UN legal action and targeted UN sanctions against the very worst offenders. This might act as a wake-up call to regimes near the bottom of the index. Knowing that they could be next in line for prosecution and sanctions, their leaders might decide to take preeemptive action to improve their observance of human rights.

The index will not prompt every country to reduce its human rights violations. Certain tyrannies are likely to carry on regardless. But the index might encourage some nations to make improvements. However small, any betterment of human rights is a gain for people whose rights have been previously abrogated.

Britain and the EU have the power and influence to take the GloHRI index proposal to the UN and get it discussed. Over to you David Miliband and Catherine Ashton.

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This post was written by Peter Tatchell

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