As primary duty bearers under international and domestic human rights law, States are bound to implement human rights and make them a reality for their citizens. Monitoring this commitment, Bantekas and Oette argue was initially problematic due to the absence of “verifiable quantitative criteria” for measuring State compliance. However, over the years, there have been several scholarly debates on the most appropriate way of monitoring the implementation of human rights. This discourse stems from the realisation that human rights rely significantly, according to a United Nations report on the “availability of appropriate tools” to guide policy design and assessment. Rosga and Satterthwaite in their article on measuring human rights posit that human rights indicators have been fronted as one of the best quantitative tools to measure human rights implementation. A report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) contends that generally, statistical indicators from local to global platforms enable people to map out crucial actors and hold them to account for their actions.
Consequently, some non-state actors, especially civil society groups are using indicators as a means of tracking the implementation of the various human rights treaty obligations by States. Indicators are an important tool for formulating and evaluating policies. The United Nations Development Programme in its Human Development Report recognises that for several years, development work has relied on statistical indicators for advocacy and addressing policy issues. In the human rights sphere, indicators are not strange. David McGrogan argues that increasingly, human rights performance monitoring is subject to “a culture of indicators, benchmarks and statistical measurement”. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted that indicators support the identification of human rights norms and principles and facilitate their translation to relevant yardsticks. This consequently guides the implementation of human rights and measuring State compliance. Human rights indicators as explained by UNDP serve four main objectives, namely;
- establishing whether states are respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights;
- ensuring that the main principles of human rights e.g. participation, non-discrimination, empowerment et cetera are being applied;
- examining whether there are guarantees to access remedies; and lastly,
- identifying other actors outside the state that can support realisation of rights like corporations, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), families, et cetera.
The UN agency further posits that indicators can help to improve policy formulation and monitoring; recognize unintended consequences of laws and policies; identify relevant stakeholders; examine if the actors are fulfilling their obligations; build consensus on resource allocation; and expose neglected concerns. According to Rosga and Satterthwaite, indicators further facilitate comparison among countries and clarify the content of the rights. Similarly, the United Nations Human Rights Council in its Human Rights Indicators Guide has argued that indicators enable States to avail relevant information for assessment of the progress made in fulfilling obligations under the UN treaty body monitoring frameworks. UNDP also postulates that these indicators not only focus on human outcomes but also the conduct of government officials and legal and administrative entities. UNHRC contends that indicators are beneficial for pushing for the claims of duty bearers to realise human rights. General Comment 5 asserts that as an “essential part of implementation”, member States need to collect reliable data which can help identify discrimination and that this should be guided by following “nationally applicable indicators”. The underlying theme in the above views is that human rights indicators are an instrument for ensuring accountability for human rights implementation by States.
To achieve this, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for example, implores states to establish adequate means to monitor national progress in safeguarding economic, social and cultural rights. In fact, under General Comment 14, the Committee guided that a state’s failure to “demonstratively monitor could itself amount to a violation of the Covenant.” The requirement to demonstrate impliedly requires benchmarks and this is where indicators come in handy. Placing the burden on each state to develop their own national indicators is commendable because it enables the design of context-specific measures. However, it has been argued this approach, which is described by Rosga and Satterthwaite as “rule at a distance” has been criticized for relegating the Committee to a mere observer. Besides, there is a fear that States can, for political expediency, easily manipulate national human rights indicators. As such, UNDP recommends that human rights indicators should not focus on just figures but also on key processes like in the judicial system. Furthermore, data collected ought to be disaggregated for easy analysis so as to inform compliance monitoring. As a human rights implementation tool, human rights indicators are advantageous because they remove or reduce the risk of subjectivity. Rosga and Satterthwaite opine that the use of statistics and numbers can provide “accurate, reliable, and meaningful” information on the status of human rights in a country.
However, they also warn that the design of human rights could be manipulated by States who might use them to create a false picture so as to give it a good standing among other States. For example, indicators can be erroneously transformed to targets and might cease to be a good measure. This may create a gap between the reports and the actual enjoyment of the rights. In other words, indicators may influence governments to focus on meeting the measures as per human rights treaties to show “success” as opposed to substantively improving the human rights situation in their countries. Additionally, like any reform, McGrogan submits that the use of indicators has been resisted for ignoring the complexity of human rights implementation which is subject to different political and economic contexts.
From the above, it is thus deductible, as UNDP suggests, that conceptually, human rights indicators evaluate whether people are living a life of dignity and enjoying their freedoms. Additionally, as argued by Maria Green, they measure the degree of fulfilment of legally recognised rights in a particular country or circumstances. In so doing, these indicators support accountability for human rights implementation. That does not mean they do not have inherent weaknesses including manipulation as has been explained in this blog post.