"Human rights violations have increased 70% since 2008 globally" - really?

According to this piece in Guardian Sustainable Business, consultants Maplecroft claim that:

"Human rights violations have increased 70% since 2008 globally"

I must say I find this quite hard to believe. In fact, I find it very hard to believe.

OK, let's be honest, I don't believe it at all.

I rang Maplecroft to ask how they worked this out.

Well, quite

They told me to look at the press release, which is here.

It looks like this number has been arrived at because Maplecroft (presumably with a black box methodology) have decided to classify more countries as extreme risk.

A spokesperson for them has confirmed this, writing that: "This relates to an increase in countries – from 20 to 34 – classified extreme risk in the Human Rights Risk Atlas from 2008 to 2014."

Here's the quote from their press release in more detail:

"Since 2008, there has been an unprecedented 70% rise in human rights violations globally, according to the seventh annual Human Rights Risk Atlas (HRRA) produced by global analytics company, Maplecroft, which reveals the number of countries classified as ‘extreme risk’ between 2008 and 2014 has increased from 20 to 34."

A spokesperson for Maplecroft also sent me this:

"...the number of countries rated as 'extreme risk' has increased by 70% over the last six years. This year, the global average risk score of 197 countries has crossed the threshold from a 'medium risk' (5.07/10) to a 'high risk' (4.98/10) classification for the first time. In the HRRA 2014, growth in the number of 'high risk' countries has abated, but the number of countries rated 'extreme risk' continues to increase...

"...Political instability has triggered the most severe human rights deteriorations. The protection of human rights has deteriorated the most in countries where political instability has undermined human security. Egypt (16), Libya (19), Mali (22), Tunisia (69) and Guinea-Bissau (74) – all of which have recently experienced forced regime change – are among the countries with the steepest decline in score over the last seven years."

Of course, there is a bit of a problem here. That's the fact that companies selling their expertise in these areas have a direct vested interest in saying that things are getting worse, that risks are increasing. No-one gives consultants fat contracts for saying things are going the other way. Not in this field anyhow.

Despite all the awful global turmoil out there, not least with Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and parts of Africa, things are, I think, generally getting better if you look at the numbers of wars, famines, conflicts, disease deaths, etc and the trends since the tumultuous days of the 1970's, when Britain almost became a failed state.

So my instinct says this number of 70% isn't a fair way of stating things.

Since when did any of the countries listed above have a good human rights record? Not in my lifetime. Are we supposed to believe that life in Libya is worse for human rights now than under Gaddafi? Hmm, that's a subjective call. How do you measure freedom over security concerns? for example.

I asked a couple of leading experts in the field,what they thought. One had this to say:

"Whilst it is true that there is greater economic inequality these days and yes more conflict now in the Middle East region, I can see no basis for the blanket 70% assertion, given factors such as:
  • Arguably there has been some steady improvement in economic and social rights in most parts of the world.
  • Given their populations - it would be China and India that would determine such a global statistic and there is no evidence for such deterioration for the majority of the population in either state.
  • If the statistic related specifically to "human rights defenders" then it would be more credible but even then there it will be skewed to civil and political rights specifically."
My own reading and research backs up the above.

Another learned contact of mine had this to say:

"70% is a big scary number and invites all sorts of questions about definitions, statistical methodology, etc. Inevitably, these sort of things risk undermining the point if they turn out to be cobbled together from different data sets. My view is that numbers are only ever really reliable or useful if they are related to a specific set of issues, in a specific sector or supply chain, use specific indicators, and over a period of time that makes comparisons meaningful."

Another expert I contacted about all this responded thus:

"“Frankly, the 70% increase figure does sound rather incredible. Certainly, there are some nasty regimes around, and the political situation, for example in the Middle East means that significant areas of the world still have very poor records in human rights. However, to suggest that things have got so much worse simply does not stack up. Also, even if the number does stack up (which it doesn’t) how much use is it? What is making things worse? What can we do to put things right? These numbers are not helpful - they are catchy headlines, but not really much good in telling us what to do.”

Readers should take this kind of number with a dump truck full of salt.

We'll debate these figures, and a whole lot more real life practice at our event on November 10th in London on how companies can embed business and human rights into their operations, and influence other important actors. Do come and join us if you can. 
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