Measuring Human Rights (9): When “Worse” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Worse”

I discussed in this older post some of the problems related to the measurement of human rights violations, and to the assessment of progress or deterioration. One of the problems I mentioned is caused by improvements in measurement methods. Such improvements can in fact result in a statistic showing increasing numbers of rights violations, whereas in reality the numbers may not be increasing, and perhaps even decreasing. Better measurement means that you now compare current data that are more complete and better measured, with older numbers of rights violations that were simply incomplete.

The example I gave was about rape statistics: better statistical and reporting methods used by the police, combined with less social stigma etc. result in statistics showing a rising number of rapes, but this increase was due to the measurement methods (and other effects), not to what happened in real life.

I now came across another example. Collateral damage – or the unintentional killing of civilians during wars – seems to be higher now than a century ago (source). This may also be the result of better monitoring hiding a totally different trend. We all know that civilian deaths are much less acceptable now than they used to be, and that journalism and war reporting are probably much better (given better communication technology). Hence, people may now believe that it’s more important to count civilian deaths, and have better means to do so. As a result, the numbers of civilian deaths showing up in statistics will rise compared to older periods, but perhaps the real numbers don’t rise at all.

Of course, the increase of collateral damage may be the result of something else than better measurement: perhaps the lower level of acceptability of civilian deaths forces the army to classify some of those deaths as unintentional, even if they’re not (and then we have worse rather than better measurement). Or perhaps the relatively recent development of precision-guided munition has made the use of munition more widespread so that there are more victims: more bombs, even more precise bombs, can make more victims than less yet more imprecise bombs. Or perhaps the current form of warfare, with guerilla troops hiding among populations, does indeed produce more civilian deaths.

Still, I think my point stands: better measurement of human rights violations can give the wrong impression. Things may look as if they’re getting worse, but they’re not.


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