Sources and categories
Human rights is a complex issue and there are multiple related measures and indexes, but sources of raw, core data on human rights are surprisingly limited.
The United States State Department (USSD) is the only source of country data that is both systematic and global in coverage, with the exception that it does not report on itself. There are obvious problems with this that relate to impartiality. Whilst CIRI Co-Director David Richards acknowledges that “fear of bias makes sense”, and that bias was an issue in the early days of the reports, he argues that the growth of independent sources for information in the form of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has made it difficult for obvious bias to be present. He notes that studies that have coded USSD and Amnesty reports separately “show a great and growing correlation”. CIRI have also put in place their own safeguards against bias in the form of using concordance software which allows it to detect changes in language: “Our scorers create scores based on information, not merely upon changes in the way something is described”.
To compile its data on the USA, CIRI use multiple non-governmental organisations as sources, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
It should also be noted that the impartiality of Freedom House has also been questioned, and that it has been criticised for its links to, and for receiving funding from, the US Government, not least by Noam Chomsky in his book “Manufacturing Dissent”. A statement on the organisation’s website makes its political orientation explicit: “Freedom House’s diverse Board of Trustees is united in the view that American leadership in international affairs is essential to the causes of human rights and democracy”.
A less obvious problem than bias with respect to the USSD country reports is the influence of the value reference system which dictates what type of information is reported. During the Reagan administration, analysis of economic rights was eliminated. According to Richards, this has resulted in the continued legacy of scarce systematic information on economic, social, cultural and women's rights compared to that of political and civil rights. Salil Shetty, in his introduction to Amnesty International's State of the World's Human Rights 2011 Report, describes elevating political and civil rights over economic, social and cultural rights as a false dichotomy. He highlights the experience of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in protest against police harassment and economic hardship. Recognition that lack of economic opportunities is caused in part by corrupt governments continues to reverberate across North Africa and the Middle East.
However, for the purposes of this research, too much emphasis on economic rights and factors that are inextricably linked to them, such as child mortality, literacy rates and life expectancy, would generate a list reflecting poverty and living standards rather than the actions of states towards their citizens. Richards warns against the “classic trap of punishing poor states for being poor” when attempting to measure human rights. So, whilst economic rights do not feature in the categories we have selected, we have instead used a measurement of government corruption, the Corruption Perceptions Index.
Analysis of the human rights performance of governments tends to focus solely on the actions of state or state-employed forces towards citizens of that country. Legally and morally, this can lead to a massive void, whereby non-citizens, be they refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers or victims of trafficking, are utterly unrecognised . This is where some of the worst abuses take place, in a place between states, often inhabited by the most vulnerable. Many countries, including the UK, now forcibly deport to countries where individuals are at genuine risk of torture and ill-treatment, in violation of international legal principles. In “developed” countries, it is commonplace to detain non-citizens, including children, outside of usual legal processes. Ill-treatment of such people is also commonplace.
This presents a substantial problem for human rights analysis. To take the most extreme example discovered during the course of this research, between September 2009 and January 2010, 12,000 Congolese nationals were forcibly deported from Angola amid human rights violations, including torture and sexual violence. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 99 women and 15 men were raped during the expulsions. Many arrived in the DRC naked and without belongings.
If the treatment of refugees and other non-citizens is to be incorporated into a comparative analysis of human rights globally, it needs to be done so systematically. But sources of such information are not available.
The data also does not reflect the behaviour of states in armed conflict beyond their borders – the actions of one government towards citizens of another country.
Occupied and Disputed Territories
Occupied territories presented further problems during this research. Different data sources treated different territories differently and therefore aggregating the data without making allowances for this would lead to skewed results. This is pertinent to two regions: the Moroccan occupied Western Sahara; and the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. Furthermore, how they are treated represents a particular political position; neutrality is impossible, and even after a position has been adopted, representing this statistically is extremely difficult. We don’t claim to have ‘solved’ these problems, but are committed to being transparent in how we have dealt with them.
There are multiple disputed territories, with varying degrees of recognition internationally. Abkhazia, which is generally considered to be part of Georgia, is recognised by five UN member states, one partially recognised state (South Ossetia) and one unrecognised state (Transnistria). Each disputed or occupied territory, or independence struggle – however it is presented - deserves separate analysis far beyond the scope of this research.
The availability of data obviously restricts to what extent it is possible to analyse territories separately. No separate data is available on Tibet, for example.
If one accepts that an occupied or disputed territory has legitimate claims to sovereignty, an inherent paradox exists when dealing with the data. If the region is treated as a separate entity, the result is to exonerate the occupying forces of responsibility for the condition of human rights there and any human rights abuses they may be responsible for. Conversely, to include the data for human rights abuses in occupied territories with those of the occupier effectively involves including that geographical area, thus could be seen to legitimise the occupiers claim to the land.
The CIRI data incorporates human rights abuses committed by Israeli forces in the Palestinian occupied territories into its Israel dataset. We have not adjusted these scores. CIRI does not, however, include Palestine, the West Bank or Gaza as separate entities, consequently no data is provided relating to the human rights conduct of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.
In contrast, no data on the Western Sahara is included in any of the CIRI statistics – either for Morocco or as a separate entity. Richards explains that the database relates to state-citizen relations, as this is the predominant relationship in international human rights law. Since the Western Sahara's legal status remains undetermined, and there is no recognised state government, it is not covered at all.
The Freedom House data scores the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Western Sahara as separate entities. The scores of these regions are worse than Israel and Morocco respectively. In both cases, the occupied regions score worse: Israel is considered to be ‘free’ in the Freedom House categorisation, Morocco ‘partly free’ and the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Western Sahara ‘not free’. We have changed Israel and Morocco's status to ‘not free’ for the purposes of incorporating FH rating into our own and to reflect conditions in the territories in which they occupy. In the case of Israel, this is line with the position taken by the UN, which does not accept Israel’s territorial claims in the Palestinian occupied territories, but states that "the [Israeli] State's obligations under the Covenant [on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights] apply to all territories and populations under its effective control”.
The Press Freedom Index was the only source to score ‘Israel (Israeli territory)’ and ‘Israel (extra-territorial)’ separately, thus allowing it to account for the arrest of journalists in international waters on the flotilla heading to Gaza in May 2010, and the targeting of journalists by Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We have used the ‘extra-territorial’ score. The difference in these scores is significant: Israel ranked 86 out of 172 countries; its extra-territorial ranking was 132. The Press Freedom Index did not release separate information on the Western Sahara.
In the case of the Freedom House Workers' Rights score, this approach was not possible as the organisation did not release separate data on the Western Sahara and Palestinian territories. The Moroccan workers' rights score has consequently not been adjusted.
However, in the case of Israel, we decided to attempt to incorporate working conditions in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, illegal under international law, and also the conditions of Palestinian workers with West Bank residency permits working in Israel. This is partly due to the dire working conditions they experience and also because companies that source from Israel run the very real risk of sourcing from settlements. Many agricultural and industrial products and their components exported from Israel are produced in the settlements, some of which are industrial zones. Although the Israeli state has signed an agreement with European countries that it will label products with their place of origin, companies often conceal the source of products. In February 2010 the European Union ruled that importing states should not be bound by the proof of origin submitted if it did not contain sufficient information to be verified, a ruling which Press TV interpreted as a declaration that the certificates of origin were not trustworthy. In France a year later, a court official charged with investigating imports by Israeli agricultural company Carmel Agrexco at the port at Sete found evidence of fraud due to incorrect labelling of settlement produce. It is also worth noting that in May 2011 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated that Israel does not recognise the internationally recognised 1967 border.
We took the questions asked by Freedom House which it uses to determine the status of workers’ rights in a country and attempted to 'answer' them with regard to Palestinian workers working in areas controlled by Israel. We found that the specific questions asked only related to ILO Conventions 87, the Freedom of Association and the Protection of Right to Organise and 98, the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. Whilst these two conventions are generally considered to be critical in terms of workers being able to challenge and improve working conditions, it was somewhat surprising that information was not systematically sought regarding other issues, such as child labour, forced labour, working hours, working conditions and remuneration. Such issues were reported in the written country reports, however, the methodology employed to obtain the information was unclear.
We found that, due to the extra-ordinary conditions experienced by many Palestinian workers, attempting to answer the questions was a fairly futile exercise. We put them to the Israeli workers' rights organisation Kav LaOved, and received the following response from Roy Wagner:
“Workers in Israel, including Palestinians working in Israel or in Israeli West Bank settlements have all the formal freedoms of forming unions, with the exception of access of Palestinian union activists to places where they are not themselves employed, as they are not likely to have permits. Moreover, since a few years ago Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements have almost the same rights and benefits as Israeli workers.
“However, the Israeli permit regime renders these freedoms strictly formal. In order to work in Israel or in an Israeli settlement, a Palestinian worker needs a security clearance and a work permit. The process of obtaining a work permit often includes a summons to a meeting with an Israeli security agent, who may require the worker to provide information to Israeli authorities in exchange for the right to work - a choice that may place the worker and his or her family at risk. Furthermore, the permit does not belong to the worker, but to the employer. Workers who fall out of grace with their employer for any reason whatsoever (or those whose employer failed to pay the authorities their work permit fee) lose not only their job, but also their work permit and possibly even their security clearance.
“Last but not least, Israeli enforcement of worker rights, including health and safety, although formally applicable, is non-existent. Palestinian workers often end up with less than half the minimum wage, denied all social benefits, and in dangerous work environments. Workers are able to obtain their rights only through a court process, after they are fired or resign (and even then there are many formal and informal obstacles) or through external pressure, in cases where the employer has to maintain a good international reputation. Unions do organize Palestinians in Israel and Israeli settlements, but their ability to make a difference is very limited.”
Wagner concluded: “The formal rights of workers are meaningless where there are mechanisms (such as motion restrictions, limitations on access to justice, limitations on the right to work) that make it impossible for workers to effectively unionize. Freedom House should phrase questions that try to reach beyond the existence of formal rights and into the actual possibility of implementing them effectively.”
Who Profits, an Israeli organisation that monitors industrial activity in West Bank settlements, further elaborates in their 2011 report on the SodaStream factory in Mishor Edomim industrial zone in a settlement in the West Bank: “Exploitation is an inevitable part of commercial production in an occupied area. Palestinians employed in these industrial parks work under severe restrictions of movement and organization... employment under occupation is always exploitative, resulting in routine violations of labor rights.”
We have therefore re-scored Israel in the workers' rights category as being “very repressive” under Freedom House’s rating. It is perhaps worth noting that this element of Israel's score is not in itself sufficient to push Israel onto this list of oppressive regimes.
This research has been a complicated process that has thrown up numerous moral and logical difficulties. We don't claim to have come up with perfect solutions, but are committed to being transparent in our methodology and open to suggestions of how to improve the process the next time the research to compile the Oppressive Regime list is undertaken. We'd particularly like to hear about potential alternatives to Freedom House as a source!
We hope that one day the fundamental problem – the availability of global, systematic data on human rights in the world – is solved by crowd sourcing. Grassroots civil society across the world has a crucial role to play in reporting human rights abuses. How such information could be aggregated is a question for another day.