By Michael Siciliano
Since the 1945 introduction of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), the advancement of human rights has preoccupied the international community and is an ever-present topic of discussion. Human rights serve an essential role in our everyday lives. Examples include our right to food and housing, our ability to engage in democratic government (the right to assembly and association), and similar freedoms that contribute to our quality of life.
A challenge that has existed since the inception of the UNDHR has been the need to effectively monitor how countries are meeting human right benchmarks in their jurisdiction. Data currently exists, albeit in a piecemeal form of varying quality. International organisations, such as the United Nations, face practical and political challenges in collecting reliable information. The need for measurement is especially apparent when we acknowledge the increasing role that data plays in determining a country’s legislative agenda and resourcing priorities.
In response to this continuing need, the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) serves as an independent global project to develop a comprehensive set of metrics covering international human rights and collect information for cost-free public access.
Based in New Zealand, the HRMI provides quantitative data for comparison of how countries are performing on 12 categories. This initiative is driven by an underlying philosophy that, unless the public has a reliable method of measurement, breaches of human rights may be easily overlooked and undervalued.
As part of its ongoing efforts, the HRMI released its second dataset on civil and political rights in June 2019. This expanded on a pilot program of 13 countries, providing comprehensive information on a dataset of 19 countries, including Australia.
The scorecard might prompt public reflection on how we can do better, particularly for vulnerable and at-risk groups within our community.
Why should we be excited about the HRMI?
The HRMI offers a profound development in how we identify and respond to human rights trends, both domestically and internationally. The data visualisation tool provides a clear, interactive infographic to observe an overview of a country’s progress on particular human rights and comparison with similar countries.
The HRMI observes 12 distinct metrics which reflect rights established in the International Bill of Human Rights.
Information was collected in two different ways, depending on the category of the metric:
1. Economic and social human rights: measured using internationally comparable, publicly accessible statistical data published by national and international bodies. Calculates the extent to which the people in a country enjoy the substantive rights and compares this to how a country with its level of wealth ought to provide human rights.
2. Civil and political human rights: collects information using expert surveys and converts responses into data using Bayesian statistical techniques.
Currently, information on civil and political rights includes 19 countries, however, users may observe information on social and economic rights from up to 170 countries.
For an in-depth look at the project’s methodology, please see the HRMI methodology handbook.
The State of Human Rights in Australia
The HRMI has released 2019 human rights data for Australia. First, it scores “quality of life”, a collection of five economic and social rights, measured against two different benchmarks:
Income adjusted: How well is the country doing compared to the best performance of other countries at roughly the same income level?
Global best: How well is the country doing compared to the best performing countries at any income level?
Australia has a quality of life score of 83.4 percent when compared to how a country with this level of wealth should provide human rights. When measured against the global best standards, Australia scored 82.4 percent.
Any score of less than 100 percent on the HRMI indicates that a country is not meeting its current duty under international human rights law. With this in mind, HRMI co-founder, Dr Susan Randolph, suggests Australia should be doing much better on almost all metrics considering the nation’s wealth.
Looking closely at the data, quality of life in Australia is noticeably worse for members of a vulnerable community, such as Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, the homeless, and refugees and asylum seekers.
The HRMI also reports on people at risk, through its surveys with human rights experts. For Australia, the initiative found that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are particularly at risk of violation of all 12 human rights it measured. Alarmingly, 89 percent of respondents identified Indigenous Australians at being at particular risk of torture or ill-treatment – leading to an overall national score of only 5.5 out of 10 for freedom from torture.
People with disabilities are considered to be at increased risk of most rights violations, particularly regarding their right to employment, with 87 percent of respondents identifying this group as at risk.
Lastly, refugees and asylum seekers were identified as at heightened risk on a range of human rights abuses such as housing (by 73 percent), the right to healthcare (by 67 percent) and the freedom from torture and ill-imprisonment (by 68 percent).
Australia presently experiences a high quality of life, which reflects our high degree of wealth. However, this quality of life does not extend to all. The challenge for contemporary Australia is to ensure every individual receives equal access to their human rights.
Furthermore, the provision of human rights should continue to be in line with our nation’s level of prosperity. The HRMI gives us another way to observe how Australia progresses towards the achievement of human rights, and will become more useful as other countries engage with this data.
Michael Siciliano is a fifth year student in the Bachelor Laws/Bachelor Psychological Science program at UNSW Sydney.
This story was updated on October 1, 2019, to correct a misreading of the data visualisation tool on "at risk" communities, and to clarify that the 2019 data is the HRMI's second publication. We thank the HRMI for its feedback.