In Highlight: The Human Rights Measurement Initiative’s Rights Tracker

26 January 2024

Stakeholders at both national and international levels have introduced a growing number of digital human rights tracking tools and databases (DHRTTDs) designed to facilitate a more holistic approach to human rights monitoring and implementation.

Via its DHRTTDs Directory, the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP) provides a comprehensive list and description of such key tools and databases. But how to navigate them? Which tool should be used for what, and by whom?

In this interview, Thalia Kehoe Rowden, Executive Director, Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) helps us understand better the specificities of the January highlight of the directory: HRMI’s Rights Tracker.

What is special about this tool? What differentiates HRMI from other tracking tools and databases?

The HRMI – a collaborative venture between human rights practitioners, researchers, academics, and other supporters  measures the human rights progress of countries and publishes all the collected data on the open-access Rights Tracker. Anyone can look up their country, and see at a glance how well the government is respecting its people’s human rights – and then use that information to press for improvements in specific areas.

The Rights Tracker differs from some other tools because it produces its data and presents it in an understandable and visually appealing manner. Working with human rights defenders and academics all over the world, HRMI has co-designed unique ways of measuring respect for a range of different rights. For civil and political rights, where violations often take place in secret and reporting is inconsistent across different countries, information is gathered directly from human rights experts who are monitoring events on the ground by using a multilingual expert survey approach. For economic and social rights, information is drawn from national statistics produced by governments and international agencies, using the award-winning SERF Index methodology to compare countries’ human rights outcomes with their income, to capture the concept of ‘progressive realisation’. Each year HRMI releases new scores according to these methodologies for nearly every country in the world.

HRMI also works hard to make all the numbers as accessible and understandable as possible, to all kinds of people, so the Rights Tracker is available in five languages so far, and displays the scores as interactive visualisations.

HRMI also approaches rights comprehensively. We aim to measure all rights in international law, and we’ve started with two main collections: economic and social rights and civil and political rights.

We’re getting ready to measure rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child next, and also getting started on labour rights and sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) related rights.

Who are its main users?

Journalists use Rights Tracker data to find news stories or add context to their reporting. We’ve seen articles in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and the Middle East Eye, for instance, as well as hundreds of other national and regional outlets.

International and local civil society groups like Amnesty, International Service for Human Rights, and Cultural Survival use Rights Tracker data in reports, press releases, and national advocacy, and also in their strategic planning when they’re analysing what the needs are in their country or sector.

Several National Human Rights Institutions already use our data in their work: we were thrilled to see, for instance, the New Zealand Ombudsman benchmark progress on democracy and freedom from torture to our Rights Tracker scores.

United Nations treaty bodies and special procedures use the Rights Tracker's data in preparing for country visits, and in reviewing states’ progress, and governments and diplomats use the data in various ways.

Increasingly, we are seeing a desire for human rights data for the private sector, too, to guide sovereign investment decisions.

Can you give a concrete example of how it can be used to monitor national implementation of international human rights obligations?

Yes! There are so many!

The Rights Tracker data is focused on outcomes – how are things going in a given country? And we have data going back over 20 years, so it’s easy to see whether there has been an improvement, in, say, quality education, or freedom of speech.

Anyone monitoring progress can also see how well their country is doing compared to neighbours and other peer countries, and see where to look for ideas, policies, and initiatives to lift performance.

One important feature of our data on economic and social rights is that we use the award-winning SERF Index methodology, which measures the progressive realisation of rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. So our scores answer the question: is a country currently doing all it can, given its resources?

Most governments in the world will say that they are doing their best – they’re just constrained by resources from performing better on housing or health. Our data show whether that’s the reality, or whether – as in most cases – there are improvements that a country could afford to make, right now, with its current level of income.

And just like the New Zealand Ombudsman and others are already doing, countries can watch whether their Rights Tracker scores are going up or down each year, and get pretty quick feedback on the impact of government actions on human rights – and they can build those observations into their formal reporting. For example, the impact of the National Security Law on human rights in Hong Kong showed up starkly in HRMI’s data, as civil and political rights scores plummeted, and converged on the very low scores for China.

Are there other tools relying on HRMI?

The Rights Tracker has recently been certified as a Digital Public Good, and we’re proud of its open source nature, which means anyone can use the data for non-commercial purposes. The World Bank and European Union draw on Rights Tracker data for some of their dashboards, as does the Pacific Community (SPC), and the Universal Rights Group’s State of the World portal.

People who are interested can see links to more examples of other people using our data on our website.

Are there any upcoming developments related to HRMI that you would like to share?

Again: so many!

We have a long wish list of ideas for adding new features to the Rights Tracker to help people find what they need and see new connections and intersections between different pieces of data.

For example, we want to further develop the ‘people at risk’ visualisations, so it’s easier to see how particular groups of people are treated across countries. We want users to be able to see more easily which countries are safer for, say, journalists, LGBTQIA+ people, or women and girls.

In 2024 we are adding Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia to our annual human rights survey tool, increasing our already extensive Asia coverage. We’d love to add more countries in Europe, Africa, and Latin America next, and are looking for funding partners to help with those expansions.

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