Measuring Trends in Human Rights Practices

I wrote a thing for Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab on evidence that widely-used data on human rights practices understate the improvements that have occurred around the world in the past few decades:

“It’s Getting Better All The Time”

The idea for the piece came from reading Chris Fariss’s  May 2014 article in American Political Science Review and then digging around in the other work he and others have done on the topic. It’s hard to capture the subtleties of a debate as technical as this one in a short piece for a general audience, so if you’re really interested in the subject, I would encourage you to read further. See especially the other relevant papers on Chris’s Publications page and the 2013 article by Anne Marie Clark and Kathryn Sikkink.

In the piece, I report that “some human rights scholars see Fariss’ statistical adjustments as a step in the right direction.” Among others I asked, Christian Davenport wrote to me that he agrees with Fariss about how human rights reporting has evolved over time, and what that implies for measurement of these trends. And Will Moore described Fariss’s estimates in an email as a “dramatic improvement” over previous measures. As it happens, Will is working with Courtenay Conrad on a data set of allegations of torture incidents around the world from specific watchdog groups (see here). Like Chris, Will presumes that the information we see about human rights violations is incomplete, so he encourages researchers to treat available information as a biased sample and use statistical models to better estimate the underlying conditions of concern.

When I asked David Cingranelli, one of the co-creators of what started out at the Cingranelli and Richards (CIRI) data set, for comment, he had this to say (and more, but I’ll just quote this bit here):

I’m not convinced that either the “human rights information paradox” or the “changing standard of accountability” produce a systematic bias in CIRI data. More importantly, the evidence presented by Clark and Sikkink and the arguments made by Chris Fariss do not convince me that there is a better alternative to the CIRI method of data recording that would be less likely to suffer from biases and imprecision. The CIRI method is not perfect, but it provides an optimal trade-off between data precision and transparency of data collection. Statistically advanced indexes (scores) might improve the precision but would for sure significantly reduce the ability of scholars to understand and replicate the data generation process.  Overall, the empirical research would suffer from such modifications.

I hope this piece draws wider attention to this debate, which interests me in two ways. The first is the substance: How have human rights practices changed over time? I don’t think Fariss’ findings settle that question in some definitive and permanent way, but they did convince me that the trend in the central tendency over the past 30 or 40 years is probably better than the raw data imply.

The second way this debate interests me is as another example of the profound challenges involved in measuring political behavior. As is the case with violent conflict and other forms of contentious politics, almost every actor at every step in the process of observing human rights practices has an agenda—who doesn’t?—and those agendas shape what information bubbles up, how it gets reported, and how it gets summarized as numeric data. The obvious versions of this are the attempts by violators to hide their actions, but activists and advocates also play important roles in selecting and shaping information about human rights practices. And, of course, there are also technical and practical features of local and global political economies that filter and alter the transmission of this information, including but certainly not limited to language and cultural barriers and access to communications technologies.

This blog post is now about half as long as the piece it’s meant to introduce, so I’ll stop here. If you work in this field or otherwise have insight into these issues and want to weigh in, please leave a comment here or at Democracy Lab.

Reform in Burma Isn’t Unraveling (Yet), But Our Narrative About It Sure Is

If a couple of recent pieces on Foreign Policy‘s website are to be believed, the democratization process that sputtered to life in Burma two and a half years ago has stalled and is now rolling back downhill. In “Hillary’s Burma Problem,” Catherine Traywick and John Hudson argue that “the promise of a free and democratic Myanmar is rapidly receding as sectarian violence escalates and the government backslides on a number of past reforms.” Meanwhile, Democracy Lab blogger Min Zin tells us that, for the past few months, he’s been “unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track,” and he points to a leadership crisis and a growing risk of social unrest as the chief sources of his anxiety.

I won’t dispute any of the facts in those pieces, and I’ve been an avid reader of Min Zin’s excellent Democracy Lab posts as long as he’s been writing them. As I argued on this blog a couple of years ago, though, I think it’s more accurate to think of what’s happened in Burma so far not as a transition to democracy, but as a case of liberalization from above that may or may not produce a try at democratic government in the next few years.

Is that a distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. As O’Donnell and Schmitter propose in their Little Green Book, liberalization involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others, while democratization entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability. The two processes often coincide, but they are usefully construed as distinct streams of political change. Crucially, while democratic government is impossible without civil liberties—especially freedoms of speech, association, and assembly—liberalization can and sometimes does occur without any democratization.

Understood on those terms, I think the liberalization process in Burma has progressed incrementally but significantly in the past two years and has not yet regressed in any substantial way, with the partial but significant exception of the plight of the Rohingya. What Burma’s liberalization has done is create space for new political and economic activity, and as is often the case, not all of what people are doing with that space is progressive or good. On the positive side of the ledger, freedoms of speech and the press remain incomplete but are much improved. Political prisoners have been released and not restocked. Apparently, there’s even a budding startup scene in Yangon. On the negative side of the ledger, the prospect of new fortunes is spurring land grabs by elites, and attempts to protest those displacements and the pollution that sometimes follow have largely been ignored or harshly repressed. And, of course, some Burmans have responded to the opening by mobilizing around an aggressive chauvinism that has already produced what amounts to a slow-rolling episode of ethnic cleansing and still threatens to slide into genocide.

As is sometimes but not always the case, this partial liberalization has also been accompanied by some significant but still limited elements of democratization, too. Parliamentary by-elections were held in 2012, opposition parties won nearly all the seats at stake, and no one shut the process down. More recently, word came that the National League for Democracy, the party of ostensible opposition leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, would field a candidate for president in balloting scheduled for next year, even if Suu Kyi herself is not permitted to run.

What we still haven’t seen, though, is any clear sign that deeply entrenched elites plan to allow that process to threaten their station. Rather, what’s emerged so far is more like the arrangements that hold in monarchies like Morocco or Jordan. There, loyal opposition parties are allowed to contest seats in the legislature, and a certain amount of free discourse and even protest is tolerated, but formal and informal rules ensure that incumbent insiders retain control over the political agenda and veto power over all major decisions.

For that to change in Burma, the country’s constitution would have to change. When military elites rewrote that document a few years ago, however, they cleverly ensured that constitutional reform couldn’t happen without their approval. So far, we have seen no signs that they plan to relinquish that arrangement any time soon. Until we do, I think it’s premature to speak of a transition to democracy in Burma. Democratization, yes, but not enough yet to say that the country is between political orders. What we have now, I think, is a partially liberalized authoritarian regime that’s still led by a military elite with uncertain intentions.

To make sure this view wasn’t crazy, I queried Brian Joseph, senior director for Asia and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy and a longtime Burma watcher who also happens to be the father of one of my son’s classmates. In particular, I asked Brian by email if he agreed with Traywick and Hudson’s thesis that the “transition” in Burma was “unraveling.” He pointed me toward Min Zin’s piece as “a more informative analysis” and said he agreed with Min Zin that “the transition’s trajectory is no longer clear” and then added parenthetically: “Not that I ever thought it was in the first place but that was clearly the message of the [international] community.”

Brian’s reference to “the message of the international community” in that aside is crucial to understanding how what I described here can be true and we can still see analyses claiming that Burma’s “transition” is “unraveling.” Best I can tell, what’s coming undone right now isn’t Burma’s reform process, although as Min Zin discusses, that certainly could happen, and there are plenty of reasons to fear that it might.

No, what I think we’re really seeing in articles like the one by Traywick and Hudson is an overdue deflation of the hype balloon Burma’s reforms have pumped up. With some help from various outsiders—some eager to see deeper political transformations occur, others looking to capitalize on the money-making opportunities this new market presents—we let our hopes for Burma’s future drive our narrative about what was happening in the present. The Arab Spring spurred a similar dynamic in American analysis of that part of the world. Let’s hope the whiplash over Burma isn’t as severe.

Prospects for Political Liberalization in North Korea

Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab has just posted an essay of mine on why the odds that North Korea might undergo a “thaw” of sorts in the next few years aren’t so bad. The top-line judgment:

Improbable does not mean impossible. Maybe this time really will be different. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the safe money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

Those “sound reasons” have to do with trade-offs inherent in the political economy of authoritarian rule, a topic I also discussed on this blog last fall in a post about Burma. Dictators want to preempt or squash domestic political threats, but they don’t like having to pay so much for security, and all that monitoring and repression trips up their economies, too. Those dilemmas mean that dictators might sometimes decide to relax repression when their opposition is weak and their economies are languishing, as is the case in North Korea today.

If you’re interested, please take a look at the piece in FP and let me know what you think. For more academic treatments of this topic, check out the 2007 conference paper on which I based my essay and this article by Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin from the November 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review.

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