June 24, 2024
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Data project ranks how well countries around the globe protect human rights

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In the first global Human Rights Report Card issued by the CIRIGHTS Data Project, Canada and Sweden were at the head of the class with a 96, followed by New Zealand, Norway and Portugal at 94. At the bottom were Iraq with a score of 12, China at 10, and North Korea and Syria with six. Iran was marked by a shocking lack of human rights, scoring only two out of a possible total of 100.

While Binghamton University Professor of Political Science David Cingranelli has been tracking global human rights for more than 40 years, the recently launched CIRIGHTS project — a collaboration between Binghamton and the University of Rhode Island (URI) — accomplishes a long-term goal: a simple report card for a complex issue.

The score is meant to grab attention and even provoke: a necessary prerequisite for change.

“People who see a report card understand what a 95 means and what a 20 means,” said Cingranelli, co-director of CIRIGHTS with Skip Mark of URI and Mikhail Filippov of Binghamton University. Mark received his PhD in political science from Binghamton in 2018.

According to Mark, CIRIGHTS “...gives a shorthand assessment of how countries are doing when it comes to respecting human rights.” It provides 72 numerical scores that show how well every country in the world protects — or doesn’t protect — a wide variety of internationally recognized human rights. The full dataset and the 2022 report card are freely available online and can be accessed at https://cirights.com/.

More maps, additional data visualization tools and a guide explaining the scoring system will soon be added. The Human Rights Report Card will be issued annually and includes a total country score as well as individual scores in particular areas, such as gender equality.

The goal is to provide researchers, nongovernmental organizations, policy-makers, college and high school teachers, and others with an objective tool to track human rights around the world, according to Mark, director of URI’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies.

“We measure what we treasure,” said Cingranelli, also co-director of Binghamton’s Human Rights Institute. “I sincerely believe that anything we care about in this world, we measure, whether it’s how much we weigh or how fast we are at the 50-yard dash. If you don’t measure it, how could you change it?”

Ranking rights

In the 1970s, the United States passed laws banning the allocation of military and economic aid to governments that systematically violated the human rights of their citizens. But how well were those rules being followed?

“I wanted to conduct a research project to examine whether there was any relationship between the distribution of American foreign aid and other favors of American policy and the human rights practices of the potential recipients,” Cingranelli explained.

In 1982, Cingranelli began researching and scoring Latin American countries on human rights with the help of then-graduate student Thomas Pasquarello, now a professor at SUNY Cortland, and a faculty colleague. A few years later, he and another graduate student — David Richards, now an associate professor at the University of Connecticut — expanded their data collection to other parts of the world. The result: the Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) Human Rights Data Project, considered the gold standard in the field of human rights until the project’s end in 2013.

A gift from URI alumni Shannon Chandley and Tom Silvia has enabled the CIRIGHTS team to hire student research assistants and data specialists to update and significantly expand the original CIRI database. Sources for scoring human rights include annual human rights reports from the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, the United Nations State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples Report and other sources. The State Department’s annual report alone often spans almost 3,000 pages, with keen observations contributed by ambassadors all over the world, Cingranelli said.

The 72 internationally recognized rights in CIRIGHTS’ database include those related to physical integrity, such as those prohibiting torture and extrajudicial killings; workers’ rights, such as fair working conditions and the right to unionize; the political rights of women and Indigenous people; and the right to a fair trial.

The scorers — often undergraduate or graduate students supervised by Cingranelli, Filippov or Mark in their seminar courses — work independently with a rigorous set of scoring guidelines and then work together to resolve differences. Using a three-point scale, 25 human rights measures were considered for this year’s pilot report card. All three co-directors taught human rights scoring seminars at their respective institutions during the fall 2022 semester. Mark’s graduate seminar at URI led the effort to create the first annual CIRIGHTS report.

Students come away from the human rights scoring experience much more sophisticated about the potential and the limits of measuring important social science concepts such as human rights, corruption and democracy, Cingranelli said. Such measurements are inherently controversial to governments that have a vested interest in maintaining their own narrative, he said.

“Our scoring guidelines lay out everything our scorers need to assess each right — a simple definition of the right, its grounding in international law and examples of what violations look like,” said Kate Sylvester, a URI graduate student. “The goal is to be as objective as we can possibly be.”

However, one country is mostly missing from the current report card: the United States. Part of that comes down to data: While Amnesty International reports on respect for physical integrity rights in the U.S., it doesn’t report on much else. The State Department report includes a much wider range of rights, but doesn’t report on itself.

Another reason comes down to objectivity, since the evaluation is done within the United States by human reviewers who have access to a wide range of sources about their own country. Essentially, Cingranelli explained, it wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples comparison.

Still, the problem may eventually be resolved. Mark plans to offer a seminar in Rhode Island that will explore the status of human rights in the United States, with the goal of establishing more comprehensive rankings of U.S. human rights. And, Cingranelli points out, nothing prevents database users from reviewing the available information and determining how the U.S. ranks on their own.

A broader look

In addition to individual rankings, CIRIGHTS’ inaugural 2022 report identifies some broad global trends in the 21st century. According to the researchers, economic rights — apart from the right to a minimum wage — have declined, along with rights associated with the ability to criticize government, electoral self-determination and an independent judiciary. Some rights, however, have seen a marked increase, such as the right to a fair trial, protection from human trafficking, women’s political rights, and freedom of domestic and foreign movement.

Ultimately, countries seem to fall into two groups: One in which human rights have improved over time, and the other in which they remained stagnant or declined. The main difference between the two groups is whether they have regular free and fair elections with universal adult suffrage, Cingranelli said.

Long term, the team plans to expand both the dataset and the scope of the report. The ultimate goal is to have a comprehensive global human rights dataset that includes every internationally recognized human right.

“The way that human rights become real is through education,” Cingranelli added. “I’m hoping that these human rights report cards will be used by people around the world, especially teachers, to learn about indicators of human rights performance and to assess the performance of their own government relative to others.”

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