The relationship between human rights and democracy is one which has puzzled scholars. As Davenport and Armstrong (2004) comment, many theorists, policy makers, NGOs, revolutionaries and citizens have deemed democracy to be the answer to the problem of human rights violations. However, many others have found that democracy is not the cure for human rights violations (Clarke, 2014; Davenport and Armstrong, 2004) Recently, there has been a decline of democracy, with a rise of populist and nationalist political forces (Freedom House, 2017). Turkey is holding a referendum to give their current prime minister more power, and recent developments in central Europe have opened the possibility for democratic gains made in the 1980’s and 1990’s to be reversed (ibid). Since 1981, we have seen a decrease in human rights (Clark, 2014).
The question remains – is democracy imperative to human rights? Are there other factors which may decrease human rights violations? Are democratic domestic legal institutions the best protectors of human rights?
In this paper, I examine the correlation between human rights and democracy using data from 2015. I also introduce a new factor – a country’s GDP per capita, and compare it to human rights and democracy. Finally, I briefly assess the success of international organizations in implementing human rights.
Data and Methods
To determine the political state of a country, data from Freedom House and Polity IV was used.
Using methodology derived from the UDHR, Freedom House assigns 195 countries and 14 territories a state of freedom each calendar year. Data from 2015 was extracted. The countries are given a score of 0 – 4 points for each of 10 political rights indicators and 15 civil liberty indicators, with 0 being the smallest degree of freedom and 4 the highest. Political rights indicators are organized into 3 subcategories with varying questions within them, including electoral process; political pluralism and participation, and function of government. Civil liberties are divided into 4 subcategories, consisting of freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights. Each country is then assigned a rating of 1 – 7 for both political rights and civil liberty, and given an average rating, with 1 being the ‘most free’ rating and 7 being the least. Established democracies are rated as free in the report’s ranking systems, and dictatorships are rated as not free.
Polity IV gives countries a rating for both institutionalised democracy, and autocracy. Full democracies have a rating of +10, full autocracies have a rating of -10; the resulting polity score is derived from subtracting to autocracy value from the democracy one. Both are measured using the 3 indicators of competitiveness of political participation; openness and competitiveness of executive recruitment; and constraints on the chief executive.
The Freedom House average was inverted. Both the Freedom House and Polity IV data were transformed to a rating out of 10, to create a Democracy Score.
To develop a Human Rights Score, data from both the Political Terror Scale (PTS) and the Human Development Index (HDI) was used.
The HDI is developed by the United Nations, and uses 3 indexes to give countries a score from 0 – 0.1. The dimensions are ‘long and healthy life,’ which uses a life expectancy index; ‘knowledge’, which uses an education index based on expected and mean years of schooling; and ‘a decent standard of living,’ which uses a GNI index (United Nations, 2017).
The PTS measures state’s human rights practises using a 5-level “terror scale” (originally developed by Freedom House) to measure levels of political violence and terror within a country. States are given a ranking from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch World Reports, and the U.S. State Department Country Reports. The average of the 3 rankings were used from the year 2015.
The PTS levels consist of
- “Countries under a secure rule of law, people are not imprisoned for their views, and torture is rare or exceptional. Political murders are extremely rare.”
- “There is a limited amount of imprisonment for nonviolent political activity. However, few persons are affected, torture and beatings are exceptional. Political murder is rare.”
- “There is extensive political imprisonment, or a recent history of such imprisonment. Execution or other political murders and brutality may be common. Unlimited detention, with or without a trial, for political views is accepted.”
- “Civil and political rights violations have expanded to large numbers of the population. Murders, disappearances, and torture are a common part of life. In spite of its generality, on this level terror affects those who interest themselves in politics or ideas.”
- “Terror has expanded to the whole population. The leaders of these societies place no limits on the means or thoroughness with which they pursue personal or ideological goals.”
(Political Terror Scale, 2017)
The PTS ranking was inverted, and the mean between the HDI and PTS found and used in the dataset. The mean is labelled the ‘human rights score’.
Similar methodology has been used by relevant scholars – Davenport and Armstrong (2004) used the PTS and Polity data to view levels of democracy and repression; Clark (2014), used Freedom House ratings and Polity IV to determine the correlation between democracy and human rights ratings; and Mesquita et al., (2005) used Polity IV and PTS to analyse which factors of democracy improve a state’s human rights record.
To determine a country’s GPD per capita, data from the World Bank was used. The GPD per capita is from 2015, and is listed in current U.S. dollars.
The correlation between a country’s human rights and democracy score was visualised using a scatterplot chart with a trend line; the correlation between both a country’s GDP and democracy score, and GDP and human rights score was calculated with a box-and-whiskers chart.
All data is sourced from 2015, as it is the most recent data available for GDP, HDI, and Polity IV.
- Democracy and Human Rights
There is a correlation between democracy and human rights, however there are major outliers. The chart is noisy, suggesting that the results are mixed. Most countries with a democracy score of 10 have a human rights score above 8; however, the majority of countries have human rights scores between 6 – 8, with varying scores of democracy.
- GDP and Democracy
There is a correlation between a country’s GDP, and their democracy score, however counties with democracy scores bellow 3 are not statistically distinguishable from countries with scores of 9 – 10 in their GDP quantities.
- GDP and Human Rights
There is a very clear correlation between human rights and GPD. Countries with the lowest GDPs have the lowest human rights scores. There are too few countries with a human rights score of 1 – 2 to plot on a box and whiskers chart.
Human Rights and Democracy
The data shows a positive correlation between democracy and human rights, yet the correlation is noisy with many outliers. Countries with the highest democracy scores have the highest human rights scores.
Individuals in countries with a high democracy score experience little state repression and human rights violations (Davenport & Armstrong, 2004; Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, 2005). These states rarely declare war upon each other, rarely commit genocide, and rarely have famines (Howard, 1995). Similarly, it is expected that an authority’s capacity to commit atrocities or human rights violations is reduced, as institutional checks and mechanisms ensure leaders are held accountable, and removed from office during democratic processes (Davenport & Armstrong, 2004).
As Clark (2014) shows, democratic gains do not necessarily to the development of an established democracy nor improvement in human rights ratings. Recent democratic gains in Africa, the Middle East and East Asia have been accompanied by declining human rights ratings. Western countries, in comparison, have only experienced a slight decline in human rights.
Myanmar, for example, has achieved democratic gains between 2001 – 2015, yet a decrease in human rights. In 2001, the country had a Freedom House freedom scale of 6.5 (7 being least free and 1 being most free), and a PTS of 3 (1 being low terror, 5 being high). In 2015, it had a freedom scale of 5.5, which is an increase of 18%, and a PTS of 4 – an increase of 25%. It has a 2015 democracy score of 3, and human rights score of 5.
Myanmar held its first democratic elections since 1990 in 2015, electing leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the National League for Democracy. However, the military retain 25% of parliamentary seats, and up to 1 million people were excluded from the voter list. Recent human rights violations documented by the UN, Amnesty International, and HRW committed by Myanmar security forces, police forces, and villagers against the ethnic Rohingya minority may see a rise in the PTS in coming years.
Ukraine has a democracy score of 7, with a human rights score of 6. Freedom House attributes its ‘freedom rating’ to improved government transparency between 2014 – 2015 (Freedom House, 2017). The “maidan” uprising during 2014 – 2015, which resulted in the deaths of 4.000 combatants and civilians, and 450000 displaced persons may explain the medium-low human rights ratings (Human Rights Watch, 2017)
There are two theories to explain why states which have medium democratic scores, or have increased their freedom ratings, experience a decrease in human rights. The first theory relates to the level of democracy within a state; the second to the turbulence of politically transitioning states.
As Davenport & Armstrong (2004) demonstrate, democracy does not impact human rights violations – below a certain level. Higher levels of democracy do impact human rights, as they negatively influence repression. One reason for this, as suggested by David Reidy, is that democratic states outperform less democratic states in securing human rights not because they are more democratic, but because they are better able to provide guarantees for the rule of law (Reidy in Beckman, 2014).
Similarly, Mesquita, Downs and Smith found that ‘improvements in a state’s level of democracy short of full democracy do not promote greater respect for integrity rights’ (2005: 439). A correlation between the highest levels of democracy and better human rights practises were found.
States attempting to transition from a socialist regime to a democratic one must go through a long and turbulent transitional period before reaching full democracy, argue Zizek (2013) and Plattner (2016). Paraphrasing Dahrendorf, Zizek (2013) notes that socialist countries attempting to transition to democracy, such as Slovenia, need to pass through a “valley of tears” – a period greater than the average time between democratic elections of difficult, yet necessary changes. The issue, Zizek argues, is that leaders focus only on short-term goals to become elected, without allowing the socialist welfare and security system to first be dismantled. To enforce such radical changes to lay a foundation for a stable and developed democracy, an ‘enlightened elite’ needs to take power for a decade or so in an authoritarian manner. Authoritarian ruling during the transitional period, as occurred in the democratically and economically successful Taiwan, South Korea and Chile, avoids a distrust of democracy and allows the elite to enforce the “necessary measures” for a stable democracy (ibid).
Similarly, Plattner (2016) argues democracy must be achieved through anocracy, a partly-free hybrid regime between the previous regime, and democracy. Furthermore, democracy cannot take root in countries which have adopted it for the first time without breaking down several times first, emphasizing Zizek’s idea of a turbulent transition (2013).
South Korea is a successful exemplification of this transition. From 1948 – 1960, the country was communist; in 1961, military dictator Park Chung Hee took control of the country and led the country from poverty to prosperity (Schuman, 2010). In 1987, free elections were held and the country’s democratic and economic rise continued – the country has continuously scored a ranking as ‘free’ by Freedom House, from when it first began collating data in 1998 (2017).
It can be concluded that, as present in the data and supported by literature, there is a correlation between human rights and democracy – however only in countries with very high democracy scores. As evident in the literature, democracy influences human rights practises only at its highest levels, and transitional democracies have a lower level of human rights.
While the data shows that countries with high democracy scores have high human rights rating, some groups within these countries (USA, UK, Australia, for example) argue that these human rights are not implemented equally or universally within the state.
These ‘status radicals,’ consider themselves to be outsider or other’ subjects to international law and human rights (Howard, 1995; Romany, 1993). They argue that rights are systematically denied to groups of social statuses, which reinforces a hierarchy of oppression (Howard, 1995). For instance, the feminist critique of human rights states women are not granted full human rights, including political legal protections to ensure rights of life, integrity and dignity of women, due to the due to the divide between the public and private sphere in law. Within the private sphere lay reproductive rights, child rearing, sexual violence and familial relationships, unprotected by international human rights law which, they argue, perpetuating a patriarchal hierarchy (Romany, 1993). Black critique in North America argue blacks and other minorities are systematically denied human rights status, using current socioeconomic conditions as an argument for the existence of systematic inequalities. Discrimination, they argue, occurs daily, exemplified by judicial bias, police violence, and exclusion from quality education, jobs and other public services (Yamamoto, Serrano, & Rodriguez, 2003).
While legitimate claims founded in residual discrimination, argues Howard (1995), these arguments do not undermine the current application of human rights in social democracies. Invoking a Marxist criticism, Howard comments that ‘equal’ human rights are not undermined by social class or status, but by economic situations. Human rights in western liberal democracies are applicable to everyone regardless of social status, but economic human rights are not enjoyed in practised by the poor. Simply put, everyone, “even those who belong to the dominant (white) race and (male) gender can be subjected to abuse of their human rights, if they are poor” (Howard, 1995: 6). Howard’s argument can be likened to the relationship between GDP and human rights, as will be discussed in the subsequent section.
Similar claims on the universality of human rights have been made by critics of the UDHR, arguing that a) democracy is not a necessary factor for human rights and b) human rights are not culturally applicable to all states.
The socialist contribution to the human rights legacy is one that often goes unnoticed. Universal suffrage, social justice and worker’s rights were waged by the socialist movement, and have since been both endorsed in the UNDHR, and adopted into to UN Covenant of Social, Cultural and Economic Rights (Ishay, 2004). This contribution is often overlooked in favour for the importance of democracy in human rights.
As Ludvig Beckman comments, in recent decades the human right to vote has become associated with the general right to democracy (2005). In the UDRH, the right to vote is implied by the provision protecting the ‘right to participation’ – a controversial implication. The right to participation does not necessarily amount to every individual’s right to vote – if human rights were to be interpreted in such an instrumental way, should states parameters on who can vote – including children, prisoners, non-citizens, and the mentally disabled – be brought into question? Beckman states that this human rights law, the right to political participation, uses instrumental arguments which go beyond what can be morally justified.
For example, Singapore is not an electoral democracy (Freedom House, 2017), yet has the highest human rights score of 10; Qatar similarly has a very low democracy score of 2, yet a human rights score of 8.
Democracy and GDP
The data shows a correlation between GDP and democracy for countries with a democratic score between 3 – 10. This can be explained using Mitchell and McCormick’s “simple poverty thesis”. This view states that lack of economic resources creates fertile ground for political conflict, often prompting governments to resort to political repression (Mitchell & McCormick in Tsutsui, 2002; Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2005).
Between 2010 and 2013, Venezuela’s GDP dropped from 393.801 billion to 371.337, with a peak low of 316.482 in 2011- a loss of 5.7% (19.6% decrease between 2010 – 2011) (World Bank, 2017). In the same time, its freedom rating worsened from 4.5 to 5 – a change of 10%. Venezuela has been an electoral autocracy for the past 18 years (Morales, 2017), and has had a status of ‘partly free’ throughout this time (Freedom House, 2017). In 2010, President Chavez devalued the bolivar in response to a second year of recession (BBC News, 2017). Parliament then granted Chavez greater powers to deal with floods; media channels were fined for covering prison riots; protesters were shot in anti-government rallies; and the government is accused of stifling criticism (ibid). Laws passed in 2010 include the ‘Law against illicit exchange transactions’ which grants the government a monopoly over all currency trades; the ‘Law for the defence of political sovereignty and national self-determination’, which blocked human-rights defenders from receiving humanitarian assistance,’ and the ‘Law governing communal councils’, which require bodies to carry out public work, superseding the roles of elected mayors, without competitive elections (Corrales, 2015). Violent clashes between anti-government protestors and security forces continue in 2017 (BBC News, 2017).
However, the data also shows that countries with very low scores of democracy have the second highest GDPs. For example, Qatar and China have democracy scores of 2 and ranked within the 10 highest GDPs of the world of 2015 (World Bank, 2017). This may be explained by income inequality – both Qatar and China have large income disparities. The richest Qataris receive over 13 times as much income as the poorest, and the incomes of the richest 20% of Chinese are eight times more than that of the poorest (The Economist, 2011).
Singapore, with a democracy score of 5, also has one of the 10 highest GDPS of the world of 2015 (World Bank, 2017), but has made steps to fix income distribution in its society with cash handouts and supplemented incomes, which is predicted to lessen the income divide (Chan, 2014)
South Korea is an example of a country which increased its GDP initially through non-democratic means. During its authoritarian regime from 1961 to 1987, dictators invested industries including electronics, ships, steel and cars (Schuman, 2010), expanding South Korea’s GDP by more than 8% per year (World Bank, 2017). During its authoritarian regime, South Korea had a relatively equitable income distribution, however this has widened since the mid 1990’s (Koo, 2014)
Human Rights and GDP
GDP and human rights have the strongest positive correlation of the three charts. According to Thomas Pogge, the massive unfulfillment of human rights is connected to poverty. The connection is direct for basic social and economic human rights, which includes a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and family (2005).
The Democratic Republic of Congo has a 2015 democracy score of 3, a human rights score of 4 and the 7th lowest GDP of the data set. As of 2012, 64% of its population lives in poverty (World Bank, 2017). The government is unable to provide adequate standards of living, nor implement measures for a long and healthy life – it has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world (McNeil, 2011). Opposition demonstrations are banned by government officials and security forces (Human Rights Watch, 2016), and LGBT people are arbitrarily detained and denied a right to fair trial, despite there being no law deeming homosexuality illegal (Asenbrennerova, 2015).
This section will weigh the advantages and disadvantages of international institutions in protecting human rights, discussing the phenomena of the ‘paradox of promises’ and the issue of responsibility.
The “paradox of empty promises,” a phrase coined by Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui (2005), refers to the relationship between the percentage of human rights treaties a state ratifies, and government violation of human rights. Countries increasingly join the international human rights regimes, without bringing their human rights practise into compliance with the regime. Countries may sign treaties to gain legitimacy on human rights, then use these agreements as a shield for their repressive behaviours (ibid: 1374). Examples include Guatemala and Iraq are examples, which had both ratified 5 of the 6 core treaties protecting human rights in 1992 and 1994 respectively, yet in 1994, human rights violations in both countries had reached an extreme (ibid: 1377). Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui state governments comply with international law only when it is in their interest; as will be argued below, this can be attributed to the self-interested nature of states within the realist perspective.
Article 5 of the UNDHR lists ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ In the United States, this article was signed in 1988 and ratified in 1994; however, in the post 9/11 period under the Bush administration, the European Court of Human Rights, along with actors, observers and agencies have exposed and reported the use of torture by the United States (Gordon, 2014). These abuses, which occurred on US soil and abroad, were directed mostly against non-US citizens and immigrants. As Rejali notes, the dominant power of the US means it can evade, and even damage human rights monitoring, as it did for some years in places such as Abu Graibe and Guantanamo (2000).
In 2011, 1500 immigrants were left at sea on the Mediterranean coast – all but 9 perished, despite received distress calls (Follis, 2015; Shenker, 2012). Violating several international customs, including 1974 SOLAS, 1979 SAR, and 1982 UNCLOS, the question turned to whose responsibility it was to save those stuck out at sea (Follis, 2015). With unclear boundaries of state’s obligations and few institutional frameworks, human rights violations occurred while the international community watched (ibid).
Despite these issues, positive effects have emerged. Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui write “the emergent global legitimacy of human rights exerts independent global civil society effects that improve state’s actual human rights practises” (2005: 1373). Exposure of the US torture regime led to an international outcry (Sanchez, 2014); and the result of the 2011 refugee boat brought the importance of defining responsibility to the international community’s attention.
Are domestic legal institutions, upheld by democracy, the most effective protectors of human rights? The data shows that generally, democratic, domestic legal institutions are protectors of human rights, but only if a) the country has a very high rating of democracy and b) the country has a high GDP.
High human rights ratings appear in countries with high democracy ratings; attempts of states to transition to democracies are turbulent and fail often, resulting in greater human rights violations. However, there is a less clear correlation between human rights scores and democracy scores for countries with democracy scores lower than 8. GDP is the best guarantor of human rights – countries with low GDPs struggle to provide basic human rights for their inhabitants. Countries with low GDPs generally have lower levels of democracy – however, countries with the lowest levels of democracy have similar GPDs to those with the highest. This is exemplified by Qatar, China and Singapore, all of which have strong non-democratic political regimes, yet very high GDPs
Human rights can be protected by reducing poverty in states, and by international human rights treaties which, although they may have an initial negative effect, do eventually foster a positive one by creating a societal norm. As Forsythe notes, “members of the United Nations are beginning to redefine their national interests to include more attention to human rights and humanitarian values” (2012: 1112).
International regimes are not perfect at implementing human rights, and neither is democracy. However, international regimes can set precedents, and international aid may alleviate poverty, allowing for an increase in human rights.
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