Change & Stability in Physical Integrity Rights Abuse

Over at Political Violence @ a GlanceReed Wood makes a strong argument that global respect for human rights, measured via the global mean of the Political Terror Scale, has not increased over time.  Amanda Murdie goes on to demonstrate that the same stability over time is present in the Physical Integrity Rights Index from the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, which I co-direct with David Cingranelli and David Richards.  I agree whole-heartedly with Amanda’s and Reed’s assessments.  Like them, I see little reason to believe that large improvements in global human rights practices have taken place over the last 30 years, particularly with regard to government respect for physical integrity rights, as shown in this recreation of Amanda’s graph of the mean CIRI Physical Integrity Rights Index score from 1981-2010:

However, while global respect for physical integrity rights has remained fairly stable over time, looking at the aggregate data in this way causes one to miss potentially interesting changes that have occurred in the particular strategies of repression chosen by governments.  The following graph disaggregates the CIRI Physical Integrity Rights Index’s four components, i.e. government respect for the individual rights to be free from disappearance, extrajudicial killing, political imprisonment, and torture:

As you can see, while there has been little change in the mean level of respect for physical integrity rights as a whole, interesting changes have occurred in the mean level of respect for the individual physical integrity rights measured by the CIRI Project.  In particular, it appears that, over time, torture has become more common while political imprisonment has occurred less. As I have mentioned before, I suspect that these changes may be partially attributed to the efforts of international non-governmental human rights organizations (HROs), such as Amnesty International, which started out as an organization primarily focused on securing the release of prisoners of conscience.  Overall, as information on human rights abuses has become more available, states may have begun to substitute a form of repression that is easy to conceal (torture) for one that is much harder to deny (political imprisonment).  Recent research from Jacqueline DeMeritt and Courtenay Conrad demonstrates that shaming by the UNHRC can lead individual states to substitute one repressive tactic for another. The overall growth in HROs and the publicity garnered by their activities over the course of the last thirty years may very well account for similar substitution at the global level, leading to aggregate changes in the average choice of repressive tactic.  Of course, a great deal more research must be done to determine if this is indeed the case.

Nevertheless, it appears that, while things haven’t necessarily improved with regard to government respect for physical integrity rights over the past 30 years, some things have indeed changed.  Information about the causes and consequences of such changes may prove vital as we attempt to determine which particular strategies may truly serve to improve global respect for human rights, rather than simply altering the means by which they are violated.

About K. Chad Clay

K. Chad Clay is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia and co-director of the CIRI Human Rights Data Project. His research focuses on the impact of international factors on human rights practices, political violence, and economic development. He received his PhD in political science from Binghamton University in 2012.

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