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: 62
Total number of PDF views: 817 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 2463 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st April 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.