Measuring civil and political human rights

Civil and political human rights ensure your ability to live and to engage in religious, political, intellectual, or other activities free from coercion, abuse, or discrimination.

Why measuring civil and political human rights is difficult

Civil and political human rights are fundamental, but difficult to measure. Violations of these rights often take place in secret and are denied by the people who order and carry them out. Often the violators attempt to place the blame for their actions on rogue agents or other actors. Indeed, the blame is often placed on the victims themselves, who are frequently described as radicals, criminals, or a threat to national security. Even when knowledge of violations is available, it is subject to uneven reporting by media, governments, and others. Previous measurement efforts have mostly based their measures on public documentation. However, this approach suffers from problems of undercounting, uncertainty, and bias.

Our solution to these challenges

At the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), our response to these challenges is to get information directly from the human rights researchers and practitioners who are monitoring events in each country. Since comprehensive objective data don’t exist, this is the best available source of information on civil and political rights globally. By feeding their knowledge into a comprehensive database, these human rights experts are growing the world’s knowledge and contributing to real improvements in people’s lives.

We gather information using an expert opinion survey, translated into many languages, designed to collect an unvarnished appraisal of human rights practices in the countries in which these human rights experts work. HRMI then uses this to construct measures that include a great deal more information than has previously been available, including data about human rights abuses that go unreported in public.

One of the strengths of this approach is that it permits us to obtain information from global, regional, national, and local organisations, giving us a diverse pool of perspectives. Another strength lies in our advanced statistical techniques for combining, and ensuring comparability across, responses. This allows us to produce data on civil and political rights that are comparable across countries, and to provide information on uncertainty, in the form of an uncertainty band around our measures.

Information is also collected about:

  • Which groups in society are particularly vulnerable to abuses of each right; and
  • The degree to which the abuses described are being carried out by state versus non-state actors.

Our civil and political rights pilot

In HRMI’s pilot phase in 2017, we developed new metrics for eight civil and political rights, each based on provisions contained in international law:

We produced metrics for 13 countries in our pilot. These countries were selected in September 2017 based on the following two criteria:

  • Sufficient interest from human rights experts in that country for inclusion (so that we can be sure we have sufficient numbers of survey respondents and active engagement during the pilot).
  • A sub-set of 13 countries that offers diversity of sizes, regions, cultures, income levels, degree of openness, etc (so that we can learn how well our survey methodology works in different contexts).

The 13 pilot countries were: Angola, Australia, Brazil, Fiji, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. You can read more about the country selection in this blog post.

In 2019 we added six more countries to the original 13: Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, South Korea, the United States, Venezuela and Vietnam. During February and March 2019, we collected information on human rights in all 19 countries via a secure online expert survey. You can read more about the survey process in this blog post.

In 2020 our country sample grew to include 20 new countries and territories in the Pacific region, and for the first time included an extra module of questions on issues specific to that region, that only went to respondents from those places. The 2021 survey is available here for you to see. [Please note this is a link to a preview of the survey only, and any responses you make will not be collected].

In 2021 we added three new countries in East and Southeast Asia: Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

To see what countries we covered with our 2021 survey, check out our country coverage page.

How does HRMI work with HRDs in each country?

Who can be a survey respondent?

Survey respondents are human rights researchers and practitioners who are monitoring events in one of the survey countries. They must fit in one of the following categories:

  • Human rights expert (researcher, lawyer, other practitioner) monitoring civil and political rights events in a country. They may be working for an international or domestic NGO or civil society organisation.
  • Journalists covering human rights issues.
  • Staff working for the National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) of a survey country, ONLY if it is fully compliant with the Paris Principles including being completely independent in fulfilling its mandate.

In most cases survey respondents are located within the country they are providing information on. For more closed countries we expect a higher proportion of external respondents. Consistent with our philosophy of remaining independent, we do not collect information from government officials or from staff working at government-organised NGOs. Our priority is to seek respondents who have access to primary sources and are often the first points of contact for that information on the ground. For this reason, we do not seek academics as survey respondents.

Since we do not have the capacity to vet all potential survey respondents ourselves, we work through trusted partners, who help to connect us to potential survey respondents who meet the above criteria. We guard the identities of survey respondents very closely, so as not to place any of these individuals at risk for sharing their perception of events with us. We have outlined some of the security measures we take, and suggest participants take, in this multilingual article.

What measures have we produced?

Using advanced statistical techniques to ensure comparability across respondents, we collate responses, allowing us to summarise for each country:

  • The relative frequency of abuses of each of the rights, and measures of uncertainty.
  • A list of groups in society who are particularly vulnerable to abuses of each of the rights; and
  • Trends over time.

This is a new methodology and the purpose of our pilot was to learn what works best so we can further develop our approach. The pilot was undertaken over the second half of 2017, and the resulting data published in March 2018. We have now refined our approach, and begun a regular annual cycle of data collection, and roll out to world-wide coverage. If you would like to nominate your country for inclusion in future cycles of the survey, please get in touch.

For more information, please see our Methodology Handbook and our article in the Journal of Human Rights:

Human rights data for everyone: Introducing the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI)” Anne-Marie Brook, K Chad Clay, and Susan Randolph, in Journal of Human Rights, Volume 19, No 3 (2020), pp 67-82, available as a free PDF download.


United Nations. 1987. Human Rights: Questions and Answers. New York: United Nations.