Measuring human rights: indicators, expertise, and evidence-based practice.

Author:Satterthwaite, Margaret

Recent decades have witnessed an "evidence-based" revolution. From medicine and nursing to education and economics, many fields have embraced this approach to turning knowledge into action. Evidence-based practice is closely related to the empirical turn, which has taken hold in many disciplines, including international law. (1) However, the discussion about evidence-based practice raises thorny questions when applied to the law (2)--especially areas of the law that are overtly normative, such as human rights--raising the central issue of how our knowledge of the world should relate to norm-based practice. (3)

Despite these complexities, other communities with strong normative commitments--including the humanitarian and human development fields--have increasingly embraced evidence-based practice, standards, and evaluation. Strikingly, these efforts have coincided with the uptake of human rights-based approaches in these fields. Indeed, rights-based indicators are often the main technology relied upon to integrate rights concerns into related fields. (4) Factual assessments, best practice standards, and program monitoring and evaluation in the development and humanitarian arenas now use rights-based indicators to understand a given situation, observe the effects of a particular intervention, and measure progress over time and across geographical space. (5)

Indicators are also increasingly used in the human rights field to understand the scope, dynamics, and relationships among human rights violations; to measure compliance with human rights legal norms; to measure the effectiveness of human rights law and advocacy efforts; and to guide rights-based programming in related fields. (6) Despite this turn to indicators, the question of whether human rights practitioners should embrace evidence-based practice has not been adequately addressed by human rights practitioners and theorists themselves. Instead, there has been a burgeoning emphasis on empirical methods in human rights scholarship, (7) and on the discrete issues of measurement, (8) impact, (9) and fact-finding methods for practitioners. (10) A limited number of studies by scholars--mostly in other fields--have examined human rights from the perspective of evidence-based practice. (11)

Drawing on previous work (12) and using indicators as a lens, (13) my current project considers how the human rights field might also embrace evidence-based practice, and what the impacts of such an...

To continue reading