Wednesday, November 11, 2015

How to Measure US Progress on Human Rights

By Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute; Lecturer-in-law, Columbia Law School

The data revolution is upon us, spurred by the UN’s adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How can U.S. advocates leverage this revolution to ensure greater domestic human rights accountability? By leading the conversation about what data to collect, and how to collect it.

As has been discussed here and here, on September 25th, the UN adopted the SDGs, or Global Goals, to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as an agenda for tackling global poverty. Grounded in human rights and applicable to all countries, the 17 goals and 169 targets cover a broad range of economic, social, and environmental issues, including gender equality, poverty, climate change, healthcare, access to justice, inequality, and many other issues. 

Now that the UN has officially adopted the goals, its attention is turned to creating global and national indicators for measuring progress towards each goal, as well as developing reporting and review structures at the global and national levels. By March 2016, the UN Statistical Commission will release a set of global indicators to guide the data collection.  Each country, including the United States, will be expected to form its own national-level indicators.

Here is where U.S. advocates should step in. Civil society has an important role to play in developing indicators of U.S. progress on the SDGs, and in eventually collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data to measure and assess how the U.S. is doing.  Human rights can and should provide the normative framework for how we measure U.S. progress on the SDGs, and a human rights framework can guide how indicators are developed.

The SDGs make clear that the process of indicator formation at the national level should be inclusive and participatory. The Obama administration has made strong statements about its intent to model domestic implementation of the SDGs, and to include civil society in domestic implementation of the SDGs. U.S. advocates can take the administration at its word by urging specific indicators, grounded in human rights, for the U.S. to use as a yard stick for assessing its progress with meeting the SDGs.

But, just how do we develop human rights-based indicators for measuring U.S. progress on the SDGs? 

A 2012 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), entitled Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation, offers an important starting point. Building off of the framework contained in the OHCHR report, the Center for Social and Economic Rights recently issued a briefing paper on human rights indicators for the SDGs. 

As these resources explain, the human rights framework for indicator formation requires breaking each right (or goal) to be assessed into its component parts, or attributes, and crafting measurements for both inputs (effort and conduct) and outcomes. Three categories of indicators should be applied to each component part: structural indicators, which measure a country’s commitment to ensuring rights; process indicators, which assess a country’s ongoing effort to implement human rights commitments; and outcome indicators, which measure the results (impact and effectiveness) of institutions, policies, and other processes.


The human rights framework counsels that human rights indicators include both quantitative and qualitative measures. In other words, they should include objective and fact-based indicators, as well as subjective indicators based, at least in part, on public perception.

And, consistent with the core human rights principle of non-discrimination (and the SDG’s promise to “leave no one behind”), human rights indicators must be disaggregated according to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age, and other factors contributing to inequality and rights violations.

Finally, as urged by OHCHR, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and others, in designing human rights indicators, particularly those for measuring progress on the Global Goals, data should be devised and collected by communities, organizations, and service providers working closely with people living in poverty and other marginalized groups.

With its emphasis on data and metrics, the SDGs offer domestic advocates an important new tool for ensuring U.S. human rights accountability. But the SDGs’ utility depends on the United States adopting meaningful indicators for tracking its progress towards meeting the goals, and a robust process for monitoring its implementation of the goals. U.S. advocates should not sit on the sidelines of this effort.  By proposing rigorous human rights-based indicators, U.S. advocates can shape how the U.S. measures and models progress on eradicating poverty and ensuring human rights at home.

Risa Kaufman | Permalink


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