Measuring Human Rights (18): Guerrilla Polling in Dictatorships

Measuring respect for human rights is most important in societies where respect is a rare commodity. The problem is that it’s not only most important in such societies, but also most difficult. You need a certain level of freedom to measure respect for human rights. And regimes that violate rights also have the means to cover up those violations. I’ve called that the catch 22 of rights measurement. One problem is public opinion: a lot of human rights measurement depends on public opinion polls, but such polls are notoriously unreliable in repressive regimes, for obvious reasons: the public in those countries is either misinformed, indoctrinated or afraid to speak out, or all of the above.

Hence, good quality human rights measurement requires some creative polling. Political scientists Angela Hawken and Matt Leighty have come up with a new strategy, called guerrilla polling. Here’s an example:

Kim Eun Ho is a former police officer from North Korea who defected to the South in 2008. … With the aid of a friend and a smuggled cell phone, he is circumventing North Korea’s leadership to solicit opinions from its citizens.

Kim conducts a nightly public-opinion poll of North Korean residents, the first poll of its kind and illegal in North Korea. Here’s how it works: Kim calls his friend in North Korea on a smuggled cell phone. The friend then uses a North Korean land line to call a subject and presses the cell phone against the handset of the landline phone, allowing Kim to conduct a brief interview.

If the interviewee were discovered by the police, they would almost certainly be punished — perhaps severely. To circumvent the North Korean police, Kim has tailored his questions so that they take about 90 seconds to answer. He tapped phones himself as a North Korean police officer, and he estimates that it takes about two to three minutes for the police to trace a call. (source)

More posts about human rights measurement are here.


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