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Measuring Human Rights Fulfillment

by Terra Lawson-Remer
August 29, 2013

A Kenyan student looks through a broken window in a classroom in Nairobi, Kenya, January 2005 (Courtesy Reuters/Antony Njuguna). A Kenyan student looks through a broken window in a classroom in Nairobi, Kenya, January 2005 (Courtesy Reuters/Antony Njuguna).


Unlike other economic and social metrics of performance, human rights, as codified in international human rights laws, are an irreducible, non-negotiable framework for assessing wellbeing. Adopted by countries through binding international treaties, human rights represent an explicit consensus between countries about fundamental rights and obligations. Not only have world leaders and international organizations agreed that human rights norms should be binding legal commitments; domestic parliaments have also debated and ratified human rights treaties, which reflect and build upon moral and ethical norms fundamental to free societies. A rights-based approach to development differs fundamentally from other approaches because the rights of the few cannot be sacrificed to improve the wellbeing of the greater population. In other words, governments cannot throw a few people under the bus in order to better the lot of everyone else.

The economic, social, and cultural rights enshrined in international human rights law bear a resemblance to other alternatives measurements of human progress and wellbeing. Various treaties, including the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the American Convention on Human Rights, among others, obligate countries to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights; and to progressively realize economic and social rights gradually based on available resources. These treaties and conventions demand states provide their citizens with adequate access to food, education, healthcare, housing, work, and social security; and prohibit discrimination between people and groups.

These are laudable goals, but they are difficult to measure. Thus, over the past five years, I have been working with a number of colleagues to develop a Social & Economic Rights Fulfillment (SERF) Index, which measures the performance of countries and provinces on their fulfillment of economic and social rights obligations, based on objective survey data collected by official statistical agencies.The project has been challenging. States are not obligated to fulfill all guaranteed economic and social rights to the greatest extent possible immediately, due to the challenge of resource constraints. But over time, countries must progressively realize these rights by devoting the maximum of available resources toward their fulfillment.  This progressive realization approach has long complicated and frustrated efforts to hold countries’ accountable for fulfillment of rights obligations. Without an evidence base for assessing performance, states can escape from their human rights obligations by claiming inadequate resources.

The SERF Index reveals that this “resource constraints” excuse does not hold up to the evidence. The index overcomes the longstanding measurement challenge–allowing an apples-to-apples comparisons across countries by using an Achievement Possibilities Frontier (APF) to estimate states’ social and economic rights obligations. We find that some countries with similar income levels perform very differently in terms of rights fulfillment. For example, The Gambia, with a per capita income of $1900, has a primary school enrollment rate of only eighty-one percent, but Tanzania, with a roughly equivalent (and even lower) income of $1600, has enrollment rates above ninety-four percent.

Social and economic rights fulfillment is only one aspect of wellbeing and cannot replace other important metrics of countries’ progress and performance, such as those discussed in my previous blog posts. But as a normative framework firmly grounded in both longstanding ethical imperatives and international law, human rights fulfillment should be recognized as a useful measure of countries’ status and progress, especially as the global community reexamines the fundamental meaning of development.

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  • Posted by AMB June Carter Perry (ret)

    The fundamental challenge to developing “metrics of performance” in human rights is the immeasurable role of culture, tradition and customary practices in many countries. The clear role of women in the first revolution in Egypt was realized because of the sheer will and intellect of Egyptian women. Yet, today, one sees the barriers back in position to keep women “in their place.” In Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, women entrepreneurs in the formal and informal sectors are a vital force in the nation’s economic growth. Simultaneously, the country suffers from pressure in certain regions to enforce sharia law. It is difficult, if not impossible, to delink “Human Rights Fulfillment” from the environment in which it flourishes or languishes. Scholars and practitioners of development must seek tools to integrate cultural factors into attempts to quantify the degree of human rights adherence or lack thereof in all nations. How to achieve the balance between the observable progress of women or minority groups within a country is the gordian knot of defining levels of human rights successes but it is incumbent upon those who address this issue to take seriously the cultural framework and continue to seek methods by which to determine progress.

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