Skip to main content

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.

Corresponding author
Christopher J. Fariss is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University (;
Hide All
Amnesty International. 2006. Amnesty International's Country Dossiers and Publications, 1962–2005. Leiden: IDC Publishers.
Apodaca Clair. 2001. “Global Economic Patterns and Personal Integrity Rights after the Cold War.” International Studies Quarterly 45 (4): 587602.
Armstrong David A. 2011. “Stability and Change in the Freedom House Political Rights and Civil Liberties Measures.” Journal of Peace Research 48 (5): 653–62.
Bell Sam, Clay K. Chad, and Murdie Amanda. 2012. “Neighborhood Watch: Spatial Effects of Human Rights INGOs.” Journal of Politics 74 (2): 354–68.
Berman Maureen R., and Clark Roger S.. 1982. “State Terrorism: Disappearances.” Rutgers Law Journal 13 (3): 531–78.
Bollen Kenneth A. 1986. “Political Rights and Political Liberties in Nations: An Evaluation of Human Rights Measures, 1950 to 1984.” Human Rights Quarterly 8 (4): 567–91.
Borsboom Denny. 2005. Measuring the Mind. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Brysk Alison. 1994. “The Politics of Measurement: The Contested Count of the Disappeared in Argentina.” Human Rights Quarterly 16 (4): 676–92.
Bueno De Mesquita Bruce, Cherif Feryal M., Downs George W., and Smith Alastair. 2005. “Thinking Inside the Box: A Closer Look at Democracy and Human Rights.” International Studies Quarterly 49 (3): 439–58.
Carey Sabine C. 2006. “The Dynamic Relationship Between Protest and Repression.” Political Research Quarterly 59 (1): 111.
Carleton David, and Stohl Michael. 1985. “The Foreign Policy of Human Rights: Rhetoric and Reality from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan.” Human Rights Quarterly 7 (2): 205–29.
Cingranelli David L., and Filippov Mikhail. 2010. “Electoral Rules and Incentives to Protect Human Rights.” Journal of Politics 72 (1): 243–57.
Cingranelli David L., and Richards David L.. 1999. “Measuring the Level, Pattern, and Sequence of Government Respect for Physical Integrity Rights.” International Studies Quarterly 43 (2): 407–17.
Cingranelli David L., and Richards David L.. 2012 a. “The Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) Human Rights Data Project Coding Manual Version 2008.3.13.”
Cingranelli David L., and Richards David L.. 2012 b. “The Cingranelli-Richards Human Rights Dataset Version 2008.03.12.”
Clark Ann Marie. 2001. Diplomacy of Conscience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Clark Ann Marie, and Sikkink Kathryn. 2013. “Information Effects and Human Rights Data: Is the Good News about Increased Human Rights Information Bad News for Human Rights Measures?Human Rights Quarterly 35 (3): 539–68.
Clinton Joshua, Jackman Simon, and Rivers Douglas. 2004. “The Statistical Analysis of Roll Call Data.” American Political Science Review 98 (2): 355–70.
Conrad Courtenay R., and Demeritt Jacqueline H.R.. 2011. “Options in the Arsenal: Are Repressive Tactics Substitutes or Complements?” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.
Conrad Courtenay R., Haglund Jillienne, and Moore Will H.. 2013. “Disaggregating Torture Allegations: Introducing the Ill-Treatment and Torture (ITT) Country-Year Data.” International Studies Perspectives 14 (2): 199220.
Conrad Courtenay R., and Moore Will H.. 2010. “What Stops the Torture?American Journal of Political Science 54 (2): 459–76.
Conrad Courtenay R., and Moore Will H.. 2011. “The Ill-Treatment & Torture (ITT) Data Project (Beta) Country-Year Data User's Guide.” Ill Treatment and Torture Data Project.
Conrad Courtenay R., and Ritter Emily Hencken. 2013. “Treaties, Tenure, and Torture: The Conflicting Domestic Effects of International Law.” Journal of Politics 75 (2): 397409.
Dancy Geoff, and Sikkink Kathryn. 2012. “Ratification and Human Rights Prosecutions: Toward a Transnational Theory of Treaty Compliance.” NYU Journal of International Law and Politics 44 (3): 751–90.
Davenport Christian. 1995. “Multi-Dimensional Threat Perception and State Repression: An Inquiry Into Why States Apply Negative Sanctions.” American Journal of Political Science 39 (3): 683713.
Davenport Christian. 2007 a. “State Repression and Political Order.” Annual Review of Political Science 10: 123.
Davenport Christian. 2007 b. “State Repression and the Tyrannical Peace.” Journal of Peace Research 44 (4): 485504.
Davenport Christian. 2010. State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Davenport Christian, and Armstrong David A.. 2004. “Democracy and the Violation of Human Rights: A Statistical Analysis from 1976 to 1996.” American Journal of Political Science 48 (3): 538–54.
Demeritt Jacqueline H.R. and Young Joseph K.. 2013. “A Political Economy of Human Rights: Oil, Natural Gas, and State Incentives to Repress.” Conflict Management and Peace Science 30 (2): 99120.
Downs George W., Rocke David M., and Barsoom Peter N.. 1996. “Is the Good News About Compliance Good News About Cooperation?International Organization 50 (3): 379406.
Duvall Raymond D., and Stohl Michael. 1983. “Governance by Terror.” In The Politics of Terrorism, ed. Stohl Michael. New York: Marcel Dekker, 179219.
Eck Kristine, and Hultman Lisa. 2007. “Violence Against Civilians in War.” Journal of Peace Research 44 (2): 233–46.
Fariss Christopher J. 2013. “Uncertain Events: A Dynamic Latent Variable Model of Human Rights Respect and Government Killing with Binary, Ordered, and Count Outcomes.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Political Methodology.
Fariss Christopher J. 2014. “Human Rights Treaty Compliance and the Changing Standard of Accountability.” Working Paper.
Fariss Christopher J., and Schnakenberg Keith. 2013. “Measuring Mutual Dependence Between State Repressive Actions.” Journal of Conflict Resolution. DOI:10.1177/0022002713487314.
Gelman Andrew, Carlin John, Stern Hal, and Rubin Donald. 2003. Bayesian Data Analysis, Second Edition. Boca Raton, FL: Chapman & Hall/CRC: London.
Gelman Andrew, and Hill Jennifer. 2007. Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Gelman Andrew, and Rubin Donald B.. 1992. “Inference from Iterative Simulation using Multiple Sequences.” Statistical Science 7: 457511.
Geweke John. 1992. “Evaluating the Accuracy of Sampling-Based Approaches to Calculating Posterior Moments.” In Bayesian Statistics 4, eds. Bernardo J. M., Berger J., Dawid A. P., and Smith J. F. M.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 169–93.
Gibney Mark, Cornett Linda, and Wood Reed M.. 2012. “Political Terror Scale.”
Gibney Mark, and Dalton Matthew. 1996. “The Political Terror Scale.” In Human Rights and Developing Countries, ed. Cingranelli D. L.. Vol. 4 of Policy Studies and Developing Nations. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 7384.
Gleditsch Kristian Skrede. 2002. “Expanded Trade and GDP Data.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 46 (5): 712–24.
Gleditsch Kristian S., and Ward Michael D.. 1997. “Double Take: A Re-examination of Democracy and Autocracy in Modern Politics.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 41 (3): 361–83.
Goldstein Robert Justin. 1978. Political Repression in Modern America, From 1870 to Present. Cambridge, MA: G. K. Hall.
Goodman Ryan, and Jinks Derek. 2003. “Measuring the Effects of Human Rights Treaties.” European Journal of International Law 14 (1): 171–83.
Hafner-Burton Emilie M. 2013. Making Human Rights a Reality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hafner-Burton Emilie M., and Ron James. 2009. “SEEING DOUBLE Human Rights Impact through Qualitative and Quantitative Eyes.” World Politics 61 (2): 360401.
Hafner-Burton Emilie M., and Tsutsui Kiyoteru. 2005. “Human Rights in a Globalizing World: The Paradox of Empty Promises.” American Journal of Sociology 110 (5): 1373–411.
Hafner-Burton Emilie M., and Tsutsui Kiyoteru. 2007. “Justice Lost! The Failure of International Human Rights Law to Matter where Needed Most.” Journal of Peace Research 44 (4): 407–25.
Harff Barabara. 2003. “No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955.” American Political Science Review 97 (1): 5773.
Harff Barbara, and Gurr Ted R.. 1988. “Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases Since 1945.” International Studies Quarterly 32 (3): 359–71.
Hathaway Oona A. 2002. “Do Human Rights Treaties Make a Difference?Yale Law Journal 111 (8): 19352042.
Heidelberger Philip, and Welch Peter D.. 1981. “A Spectral Method for Confidence Interval Generation and Run Length Control in Simulations.” Communications of the ACM 24: 233–45.
Heidelberger Philip, and Welch Peter D.. 1983. “Simulation Run Length Control in the Presence of an Initial Transient.” Operations Research 31 (6): 1109–44.
Hill Daniel W. Jr. 2010. “Estimating the Effects of Human Rights Treaties on State Behavior.” Journal of Politics 72 (4): 1161–74.
Hill Daniel W. Jr., and Jones Zachary M.. 2014. “An Empirical Evaluation of Explanations for State Repression.” American Political Science Review (forthcoming).
Hill Daniel W. Jr., Moore Will H., and Mukherjee Bumba. 2013. “”Information Politics v Organizational Incentives: When are Amnesty International's “Naming and Shaming” Reports Biased?International Studies Quarterly 57 (2): 219–32.
Hollyer James R., and Rosendorff B. Peter. 2011. “Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Sign the Convention Against Torture? Signaling, Domestic Politics and Non-Compliance.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6: 275327.
Hopgood Stephen. 2006. Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Innes de Neufville Judith. 1986. “Human Rights Reporting as a Policy Tool: An Examination of the State Department Country Reports.” Human Rights Quarterly 8 (4): 681–99.
Jabine Thomas B., and Claude Richard P., eds. 1992. Human Rights and Statistics: Getting the Record Straight. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Jackman Simon. 2008. “Measurement.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology, eds. Box-Steffensmeier Janet M., Brady Henry E. and Collier David. New York: Oxford University Press.
Keck Margaret, and Sikkink Kathryn. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Keith Linda Camp. 1999. “The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Does it Make a Difference in Human Rights Behavior?Journal of Peace Research 36 (1): 95118.
Keith Linda Camp, Tate C. Neal, and Poe Steven C.. 2009. “Is The Law A Mere Parchment Barrier To Human Rights Abuse?Journal of Politics 71 (1): 644–60.
Korey William. 2001. NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Curious Grapevine. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lake David A., and Wong Wendy. 2009. “The Politics of Networks: Interests, Power, and Human Rights Norms.” In Networked Politics, ed. Kahler Miles. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Landman Todd, and Larizza Marco. 2009. “Inequality and Human Rights: Who Controls What, When, and How.” International Studies Quarterly 53 (3): 715–36.
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. 1997. Critique: Review of the U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lord Frederic M. 1980. Applications of Item Response Theory to Practical Testing Problems. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.
Lord Frederic M., and Novick Melvin R.. 1968. Statistical Theories of Mental Test Scores. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Lupu Yonatan. 2013 a. “Best Evidence: The Role of Information in Domestic Judicial Enforcement of International Human Rights Agreements.” International Organization 67 (3): 469503.
Lupu Yonatan. 2013 b. “The Informative Power of Treaty Commitment: Using the Spatial Model to Address Selection Effects.” American Journal of Political Science 57 (4): 912–25.
Marshall Monty G., Gurr Ted R., and Harff Barbara. 2009. “PITF - STATE FAILURE PROBLEM SET: Internal Wars and Failures of Governance, 1955–2009.” Dataset and Coding Guidelines.
Marshall Monty, Jaggers Keith, and Gurr Ted R.. 2013. “Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions 1800-2010 Dataset Users’ Manual.”
Martin Andrew D., and Quinn Keven M.. 2002. “Dynamic Ideal Point Estimation via Markov Chain Monte Carlo for the U.S. Supreme Court, 1953–1999.” Political Analysis 10 (2): 134–53.
Mason T. David, and Krane Dale A.. 1989. “The Political Economy of Death Squads: Toward a Theory of the Impact of State-Sanctioned Terror.” International Studies Quarterly 33 (2): 175–98.
Moore Will H. 1998. “Repression and Dissent: Substitution, Context, Timing.” American Journal of Political Science 42 (3): 851–73.
Moore Wil H. 2000. “The Repression of Dissent: A Substitution Model of Government Coercion.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 44 (1): 107–27.
Morrow James D. 2007. “When do States Follow the Laws of War?American Political Science Review 101 (3): 559–72.
Murdie Amanda, and Bhasin Tavishi. 2011. “Aiding and Abetting? Human Rights INGOs and Domestic Anti- Government Protest.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55 (2): 163–91.
Murdie Amanda, and Davis David R.. 2012. “Looking in the Mirror: Comparing INGO Networks Across Issue Areas.” Review of International Organizations 7 (2): 177202.
Neumayer Eric. 2005. “Do International Human Rights Treaties Improve Respect for Human Rights?Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (6): 925–53.
Nordås Ragnhild, and Davenport Christian. 2013. “Fight the Youth: Youth Bulges and State Repression.” American Journal of Political Science 57 (4): 926–40.
Pemstein Daniel, Meserve Stephen A., and Melton James. 2010. “Democratic Compromise: A Latent Variable Analysis to Ten Measure of Regime Type.” Political Analysis 18 (4): 426–49.
Plummer Martyn. 2010. “JAGS (Just Another Gibbs Sampler) 1.0.3 Universal.”
Poe Steven C. 2004. “The Decision to Repress: An Integrative Theoretical Approach to the Research on Human Rights and Repression.” In Understanding Human Rights Violations: New Systematic Studies, eds. Carey S. and Poe S.. Aldershott: Ashgate, 1642.
Poe Steven C., Carey Sabine C., and Vazquez Tanya C.. 2001. “How are These Pictures Different? A Quantitative Comparison of the US State Department and Amnesty International Human Rights Reports, 1976–1995.” Human Rights Quarterly 23 (3): 650–77.
Poe Steven C., and Tate C. Neal. 1994. “Repression of Human Rights to Personal Integrity in the 1980s: A Global Analysis.” American Political Science Review 88 (4): 853–72.
Poe Steven C., Tate C. Neal, and Keith Linda Camp. 1999. “Repression of the Human Right to Personal Integrity Revisited: A Global Cross-National Study Covering the Years 1976–1993.” International Studies Quarterly 43 (2): 291313.
Poole Keith T., and Rosenthal Howard. 1991. “Patterns of Congressional Voting.” American Journal of Political Science 35 (1): 228–78.
Poole Keith T., and Rosenthal Howard. 1997. A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting. New York: Oxford University Press.
Przeworski Adam, Alvarez Michael E., Cheibub José Antonio, and Limongi Fernando. 2000. Democracy and Development. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rasch Georg. 1980. Probabilistic Models for Some Intelligence and Attainment Tests. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Rummel Rudolph J. 1994 a. Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder in the Twentieth Century. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rummel Rudolph J. 1994 b. “Power, Geocide and Mass Murder.” Journal of Peace Research 31 (1): 110.
Rummel Rudolph J. 1995. “Democracy, Power, Genocide, and Mass Murder.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 39 (1): 326.
Schnakenberg Keith E., and Fariss Christopher J.. 2014. “Dynamic Patterns of Human Rights Practices.Political Science Research and Methods 2 (1): 131.
Schoultz Lars. 1981. “US Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Aid Distributions.” Comparative Politics 13 (2): 149–70.
Sikkink Kathryn. 2011. The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics. The Norton Series in World Politics: W.W. Norton and Company.
Simmons Beth A. 2000. “International Law and State Behavior: Commitment and Compliance in International Monetary Affairs.” American Political Science Review 94 (4): 819–35.
Simmons Beth A. 2009. Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics. Cambridge University Press.
Simmons Beth A., and Hopkins Daniel J.. 2005. “The Constraining Power of International Treaties: Theory and Methods.” American Political Science Review 99 (4): 623–31.
Sinkovits Robert S., Cicotti Pietro, Strande Shawn, Tatineni Mahidhar, Rodriguez Paul, Wolter Nicole, and Bala Natasha. 2011. “Data Intensive Analysis on the Gordon High Performance Data and Compute System.” KDD '11 Proceedings of the 17th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, 747–8.
Spiegelhalter David J., Best Nicola G., Carlin Bradley P., and Van Der Linde Angelika. 2002. “Bayesian Measures of Model Complexity and Fit.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series B (Statistical Methodology) 64 (4): 583639.
Stohl Michael, Carleton David, and Johnson Steven E.. 1984. “Human Rights and US Foreign Assistance from Nixon to Carter.” Journal of Peace Research 21 (3): 215–26.
Stohl Michael, Carleton David, Lopez George, and Samuels Stephen. 1986. “State Violation of Human Rights: Issues and Problems of Measurement.” Human Rights Quarterly 8 (4): 592606.
Sundberg Ralph. 2009. “Revisiting One-sided Violence: A Global and Regional Analysis.” In States in Armed Conflict, eds. Harbom Lotta and Sundberg Ralph. Uppsala: Universitetstryckeriet.
Taylor Charles Lewis, and Jodice David A.. 1983. World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators Third Edition. Vol. 2, Political Protest and Government Change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Treier Shawn, and Jackman Simon. 2008. “Democracy as a Latent Variable.” American Journal of Political Science 52 (1): 201–17.
Trochim William M.K., and Donnelly James P.. 2008. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 3rd ed. Mason, OH: Atomic Dog.
van Schuur Wijbrandt H. 2003. “Mokken Scale Analysis: Between the Guttman Scale and Parametric Item Response Theory.” Political Analysis 11 (2): 139–63.
Voeten Erik. 2000. “Clashes in the Assembly.” International Organization 54 (2): 185215.
Von Stein Jana. 2005. “Do Treaties Constrain or Screen? Selection Bias and Treaty Compliance.” American Political Science Review 99 (4): 611–22.
Vreeland James Raymond. 2008. “Political Institutions and Human Rights: Why Dictatorships Enter into the United Nations Convention Against Torture.” International Organization 62 (1): 65101.
Wayman Frank W., and Tago Atsushi. 2010. “Explaining the Onset of Mass Killing, 1949–87.” Journal of Peace Research 47 (1): 313.
Wong Wendy H. 2012. Internal Affairs: How the Structure of NGOs Transforms Human Rights. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Wood Reed M. 2008. “‘A Hand Upon the Throat of the Nation’: Economic Sanctions and State Repression, 1976–2001.” International Studies Quarterly 52 (3): 489513.
Zanger Sabine C. 2000. “A Global Analysis of the Effect of Political Regime Changes on Life Integrity Violations, 1977–93.” Journal of Peace Research 37 (2): 213–33.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 47
Total number of PDF views: 641 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1900 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.