restricted access What We Talk About When We Talk About Indicators: Current Approaches to Human Rights Measurement
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Human Rights Quarterly 23.4 (2001) 1062-1097

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Indicators: Current Approaches to Human Rights Measurement

Maria Green


I. Introduction 1063
II. Types of Materials Surveyed 1065
III. Initial Definitions 1065
A. Indicators 1065
B. Human Rights 1066
IV. An Overview of Basic Human Rights Concepts 1066
A. Origin and Nature of International Human Rights Protection 1067
B. List of the Rights Protected under International Law 1068
C. Progressive Realization 1070
D. Rights that are not Subject to Progressive Realization 1071
E. Three Duties: Respect, Protect, Fulfill 1071
F. Core Content 1072
G. Organizing Principles 1073
H. Normative Contents of the Various Economic,Social and Cultural Rights 1074
I. Obligations of Conduct and Obligations of Result 1075
J. Two Common Misconceptions with Regard to Human Rights 1075
V. Definitions: "Indicators," "Benchmarks" and "Indices" in the Human Rights Discourse 1076
A. General (non-HR) Definitions for Indicators 1076
B. Human Rights Indicators as Statistics 1077
C. "Thematic" Approach to Human Rights Indicators 1078
D. Benchmarks 1080
E. Indices 1082
VI. Theoretical Issues Concerning Human Rights Indicators 1084
A. Criteria by which They are Adopted: Disaggregation, Progressive Measurement 1084
B. What is Being Measured: Compliance with Obligations or Enjoyment of Rights? 1085
C. Distinctions Between Human Rights Indicators and Development Indicators? 1089
D. Distinctions Between Civil and Political Rights Indicators and Indicators for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? 1091
VII. The Role of Human Rights in the Development Discourse 1094
VI. Conclusion and Recap of Discussion Points 1096

I. Introduction

In the spring of 1999, when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was preparing the Human Development Report 2000 (HDR), it asked the International Anti-Poverty Law Center (IAPLC) to prepare a background paper on the state of the field in human rights indicators. The Human Development Report Office was particularly interested in receiving the following elements:

-- rough overview and introduction of the issue, i.e. (human rights) indicators;

-- summary, and thorough review of recent contributions, approaches, and trends in the field, covering: [(i)] approaches used in measurement, such as whether the measurement focuses on human outcomes or state obligations; (ii) areas covered; (iii) whether the focus is on ESCR [economic, social and cultural rights] or extends to [End Page 1063] specific provisions in the multitude of other legal instruments such as the Rights of the Child, CEDAW, core labor standards;

-- identifying gaps in the literature. 1

This article is the result of that request. Its purpose is to provide an account of the current state of the field with regard to human rights indicators, including indicators for civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights. 2

The literature survey covers materials dealing both with the theory of human rights indicators and with the practice of human rights monitoring. The survey is limited to materials dealing explicitly with human rights indicators and excludes texts from the infinitely more vast field of development, economic, and social indicators, where those texts do not contain references to international human rights law. In particular, this article does not attempt to cover the field of social indicators theory, in which the UNDP was already expert. Because of the constraints of time and length, the documents surveyed deal primarily with UN human rights instruments rather than with regional human rights instruments such as the various conventions of the Organization of American States and the Organization for African Unity.

In the course of an extensive examination of the field we identified five central questions in the discussion of human rights indicators:

1. Is the word "indicator" used within the human rights community to refer to information beyond statistical data?

2. Is there a difference in kind between indicators designed to measure economic, social and cultural rights and indicators designed to measure civil and political rights?

3. Is there a practical distinction to be made between indicators designed to measure states' compliance with their obligations under the various human rights treaties and indicators designed to measure individuals' and groups' enjoyment of their...