Measuring Human Rights (32): Assessing Advocacy and Policy by Way of Counterfactual Thinking

Human rights measurement is ultimately about levels of respect for human rights, but it can also be useful to try to measure the impact of human rights advocacy and policy on these levels. Both advocacy and policy (the difference being that the former is non-governmental) aim at improving levels of respect for human rights. Obviously, those levels don’t depend solely on advocacy or policy, but it’s reasonably to assume that they are to some extent dependent on those types of action. It’s hard – although not impossible – to imagine that millions of people and dozens of governments and international institutions would engage in pointless activity.

The question is then: to what extent exactly? How much do advocacy and policy help? The problem in answering this question is that we won’t necessarily learn a lot by simply looking at the levels and how they evolve. Not only is there the difficulty of comparing different possible causes; a flat trend line – or even a declining trend line – may cover up how much more awful things would have been without advocacy and policy. Levels of respect may very well stay as they are or even worsen while advocacy and policy are relatively successful because the levels without advocacy and policy would have been even lower.

Of course, it’s very hard to quantify this. If there’s improvement, you can at least try to sort out the relative contribution of different causes. If things don’t improve or even worsen, then the only way to measure the effect of advocacy and policy is the use of counterfactual thinking. And that’s a problem. How bad (or good?) would things have been without advocacy and policy? We can’t redo a part of a country’s history to test what would have happened with other choices. We can speculate about the answer to “what if” questions but since we can’t experiment we’re left with a lot of uncertainty. What if Hitler had won the war? Or had been admitted to art school? Fun questions to try and answer, but the answers won’t tell us much about the real world, unfortunately. If they did, we would know what to do.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (9): Most Urgent Human Rights Policies

If you’re a political leader, a church leader or anyone else with the ability and willingness to change some people’s behavior and promote respect for human rights – to some extent that includes all of us – what should be your policy priorities? On which human rights violations should you focus? Ideally, you would like to be told something more specific than “reduce suffering and violence and enhance liberty and equality”. So here’s my attempt at something specific.

I’ll list a few domains that require urgent action. Not all of these domains are equally amenable to action, because there may be strong resistance in some quarters. Nevertheless, I consider all these domains to be equally important. I’ll list them first (and include links to older posts arguing why action is important) and afterwards distinguish between those domains where immediate progress is realistic and where it’s not. Of course, it’s not because progress isn’t realistic that we should remain passive.

  1. Promote free trade. Standard arguments for protectionism sound a lot like the Count complaining that there are beggars at the door. Protectionism may even harm citizens of the protecting country. It certainly harms producers in poorer countries. More here.
  2. Abolish capital punishment and reduce incarceration rates. Capital punishment doesn’t deliver on its promises, and even if it did it wouldn’t be acceptable. “Tough on crime” policies go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims.
  3. One way to reduce incarceration rates is to end the war on drugs. Ending the war on drugs will also reduce racial discrimination because it leads to strong imbalances in incarceration rates by race, impoverishing and even destroying many black families.
  4. Abolish existing laws and practices that lead to discrimination of all types. Some laws, however, may be necessary to combat discrimination.
  5. Guarantee social safety nets through a fair and efficient system of benefits and progressive taxation – perhaps including a basic income guarantee – but also encourage private charity. Design the taxation system in such a way that it reduces income inequality.
  6. Help the poor by way of Conditional Cash Transfers.
  7. Rethink development aid.
  8. Combat malnourishment and hunger and improve the water supply.
  9. Reduce immigration restrictions. The supposed negative consequences of increased immigration are largely fictitious, and the benefits for migrants are huge. Also relax asylum rules for refugees.
  10. Improve education and healthcare.
  11. Enhance the scope of humanitarian intervention in order to avoid Rwanda style atrocities.
  12. Promote democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, and the separation of church and state, and improve those institutions where they already exist. Human rights are typically safer in democracies and obviously require the rule of law.
  13. Declare victory in the war on terror, but continue the capture terrorist and subject them to fair criminal trials. Abandon torture, targeted killings if alternatives are available, and extrajudicial incarceration, and limit invasions of privacy to those strictly necessary to capture terrorists.
  14. Abolish freedom-restricting laws such as those prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia. Relax abortion laws where necessary.
  15. Guarantee the freedom of the internet.

Now, which of these actions are realistic in the short term, and which are not? The latter part of the list, namely actions 9 to 15, seems to be the most difficult. Substantial progress is already under way for 1, 2, 4 (take the case of same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT), 6, 7 and 8. Also, 3 may be heading in the right direction. 5 depends to some extent on the general economic climate.

It’s obviously a long list of often very difficult policies, even when we limit ourselves to those areas where progress is relatively easy. Also, in some countries, progress may be easier in some areas than in others. That’s why this list is still too general and different actors may have to choose a subset.

More on progress in the field of human rights here.