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Respect for Human Rights has Improved Over Time: Modeling the Changing Standard of Accountability


According to indicators of political repression currently used by scholars, human rights practices have not improved over the past 35 years, despite the spread of human rights norms, better monitoring, and the increasing prevalence of electoral democracy. I argue that this empirical pattern is not an indication of stagnating human rights practices. Instead, it reflects a systematic change in the way monitors, like Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department, encounter and interpret information about abuses. The standard of accountability used to assess state behaviors becomes more stringent as monitors look harder for abuse, look in more places for abuse, and classify more acts as abuse. In this article, I present a new, theoretically informed measurement model, which generates unbiased estimates of repression using existing data. I then show that respect for human rights has improved over time and that the relationship between human rights respect and ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture is positive, which contradicts findings from existing research.

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Christopher J. Fariss is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University (;
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