Debate with the UNA


In 2005, the UNA - UK Conference asked the Board of UNA to examine the Index idea.

Initally, they turned it down. Below is the response from the then President, Sir Richard Jolly, together with my answer.

I put the matter before the Youth wing of the UNA (UNYSA) in May 2006, but there was not response.

Happily, in April 2007 UNA-UK Conference accepted the following as policy:

Governance Index

UNA-UK supports the further development of major indices of human development and security such as UNDP's Human Development Index and the Human Security Centre's Human Security Report, and welcomes the use of these indices by the UN system, especially in ascertaining the ability of states to enhance the welfare of their citizens and to assess their progress towards good governance. UNA-UK promotes greater use of these indices, in parallel with the UN human rights treaty bodies and associated mechanisms as early warning mechanisms, especially in the context of the implementation for the responsibility to protect.

The clumsy phrasing is the result of compositing. The great thing was that I had nothing to do with this motion; it was put forward by UNA branches who have grasped the idea and adopted it. The UNA Board were at pains to blunt any radical wording, but the sense survived. Next year we will try to make the Index more explicit.


From Sir Richard Jolly, email, 16.3.06

I read with interest, great interest, your piece about the UN developing an index to name and shame governments that are oppressive. Interesting as I find it, I do also, to be frank, have many doubts and disagreements – not with the aim but with the technical and political realism of your approach and proposal.

As regards technicalities, the choice of indicators, their weighting and scoring may seem to be “objective” but in fact they are inevitably and extremely value-laden. This has always been recognised, for example, with the HDI - though we have mostly got away with its subjective components because broadly it is not extremely controversial. Occasionally, some countries did criticise their ranking and made representations to UNDP, but this was rare.

If an index was used to name and shame, however, you can be certain that there will be many more objections, some of which will focus on the more subjective elements involved in any index and there will be no shortage of people who will argue strongly for or against mostly on political grounds.

So let me come to the issue of political realism. As has emerged in recent debates over the Secretary-General’s [i.e. of the UN] proposal for changing the composition of the Human Rights Commission, the UN inevitably is hostage to governments in how it monitors and reports on human rights implementation. The HR Commission has, in recent years, been captured by some of the more reactionary countries, losing legitimacy and credibility and leading to the latest proposals for reform. Even with strong developed-country support, it is not yet clear how far such reform will be allowed to go. But your article gives too little attention to these clashes between countries over the UN politics of human rights. Since governments ultimately rule in the UN, no proposal can succeed unless it has considerable support from governments. To be frank, your proposal needs to give much more attention to these political dimensions, if it is to be carried forward and if it is to obtain serious support even from NGOs.

As regards your latest note, R2P and the Index of Human Rights, I have much the same concerns. This time, your focus is on the US and UK in particular. Sympathetic as I am to bringing to public attention their failures over Iraq, I feel equally certain that for the UN to publish an index of human rights would simply lead to the US opposing the action and probably ensuring that it got no funds.

So am I totally pessimistic? No. I feel that the way forward must be for the UN to promote declarations and conventions of human rights and, as far as possible, to oversee a process of monitoring and reporting. However, in my view the publicity about failures will mostly come from professional NGOs.

Human Rights Watch is to my mind a good example and there are many others, some of whom do indeed produce indices of human rights performance and lead the media in praise or condemnation. This is realistic and considerably effective, in my view. I just think that we cannot at this stage expect much more from governments, at least when broad UN consensus is required.

Richard Jolly


Reply to Sir Richard Jolly from Richard Lawson 29.3.06

Dear Richard


Your first query relates to the technical difficulties of getting an accurate measurement. Any rating is the result of a series of abstractions from a given, which in this case is the real human rights situation in any country, as it occurs, infinite in its complexity, the resultant of an unknowable number of factors, psychological, social, historical, genetic, and environmental. This full reality is beyond our ken.

To attempt to grasp and record this reality, we have first the perception of the reality of those human rights events in the experience of those who live in, or travel through, the country. This is affected by factors like psychological viewpoint and personal and ethnic history. This is the first layer of evidence.

The second layer is in the recording of this evidence. It depends on who comes forward to give evidence, on their motivation, and on how safe they feel in giving evidence. Their character as witnesses matters, and their ability to express themselves clearly.

The third layer is in the quality of reports that are assembled. This depends on the viewpoints of the rapporteurs, their brief, and the expectations and wishes of those who have commissioned the reports. For example, UN reports on Darfur are stopping short of using the term “ethnic cleansing” when reason would suggest that this is clearly taking place.

The fourth layer lies in the classification of the reports into numerical order, the reduction of anecdotal data to a code. Some of the data is numerical, for instance, the number of disappearances reported by relatives, and some may be supplied by the governments concerned, for instance, the number of executions carried out, but many of the allocations of qualitative data to a quantitative category must be based on a judgement.

Clearly, in these four layers there is scope for subjectivity and error, in either direction, either in favour of or against the responsible authorities, but this technical imperfection does not invalidate the process, for two excellent reasons.

First, all governments will be going through the same process, so all will be subject to the same errors, although more powerful governments will be likely to treated more gently. However, the HDI will be factored in to offset this favouring effect.

What is of importance is not that the accuracy of the final assessment should be absolutely perfect, but that it will show the position of the regime in question relative to its neighbours (that is in terms of the HDI, their comparators). The final position is relative, not absolute. Also, the position is relative, not just to their comparator regimes, but also to their own position in previous years. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has indicated in correspondence that they are interested in this aspect.

Second, if authorities are determined to appeal against their rating, they can do so. This will involve sitting down with an adjudicator, and going over the report for their country in detail. This process will be therapeutic for the regime. They will have to account for their treatment of political prisoners, for the conditions in their jails, and for all the other parameters which go to make up the final Index. They will learn of the feelings and experiences of their victims, and the relatives of their victims. Most importantly, it is highly probable that prior to a prison inspection arising out of the appeals process, the regime will improve conditions and even release a few prisoners in order to improve on their ratings. In this way, the very existence of the Index will be of immediate and practical humanitarian value.

It may prove that after the reassessments they may move up (or even down) the scale a little.

Some 13 parameters were used in the Observer Index of Human Rights. It might be considered advantageous to broaden this yet further, taking in other governance parameters, as I have set out [elsewhere] on the website. I decided to focus onto human rights in the name of simplicity. It would be of academic interest to see what degree of concordance there is between the many (I counted over 40) indices of governance.

In short, despite the difficulty with perfect objectivity, an Index can stand as a reasonable proxy for the existent situation. There is a saying “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it”. We have no alternative but to measure abuse if we really want to improve the situation globally, otherwise we are left with a piecemeal, case by case approach.

The second doubt raised is that of the anticipated political difficulties. New Zealand’s permanent representative, although supportive of the idea of an Index, voiced the same concern. You mentioned the anticipated American attitude, but this is the least our worries. George Bush will be gone in a couple of years, and his successor is likely to be at pains to mend US-UN relationships, so will be open to communitarian ideas like the Index of Human Rights. Looking further forward, the end of American hegemony may follow a fall in the power of the dollar, which could happen only too easily. This may result in America falling back into a position of being one country among a community of others, or it may result in China assuming the position of world superpower. Given the present leadership and attitudes in China, that would be no better, and probably worse, for human rights than the present American supremacy. On the other hand, the Chinese junta have held back, but not defeated the rising tide of democracy, and it is possible that by the time America falls away, China could be on the way to being a liberal democracy.

The only predictable thing about the future of politics is that unpredictable things will happen. The only certain thing about action in politics is that, as Fritz Schumacher said, we must do the right thing and not worry about whether we will be successful, because otherwise we will do the wrong thing, and then we will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

For some of us here in civil society, it seems right that governments’ performance in human rights should be not just reported and recorded, but also made public. This suggestion will not be welcomed by governments who are going to be shown in a poor light, but as the idea becomes current, it will be adopted by liberal and democratic governments. For the idea to become current requires the debate that is occurring here. Several small NGOs have already readily adopted the Index of Human Rights in the UN proposal. When the UNA and Amnesty have adopted the idea, we will be able to open up a meaningful dialogue with leading countries like the Nordic nations, New Zealand and the Community of Democratic Countries.

At an international level, I envisage a facility that allows supporter nations to “nail their colours to the mast”, by declaring their support for the core proposal. Numbers will slowly grow, and support could be levered as part of the multiplicity of negotiations that take place all the time. Simultaneous Policy (Simpol) can be used here, as with many other issues that require nations to move in concert.

At the same time, an Index of Human Rights could be run on an informal basis – Mark Gibney already has a current model. If the community of supporting nations supported Mark, the Index could develop.

I fully understand that the UNA has to move cautiously in policy matters of this magnitude, and I do not anticipate an endorsement this year. At this stage, I just hope for an ongoing exploration of the idea, and for this, I do thank you for your engagement. ...

Again, many thanks for your interest



© 2001 R. Lawson