Human rights commissions helpful, says Stanford researcher

A new study presents data showing that human rights abuses ultimately decline in countries that establish oversight commissions.

U.S. State Department/Rifky Suryadinata National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia

Commissioners and staff from the National Human Rights Commission in Indonesia discuss at a recent meeting its role in protecting the rights of the nation's citizens. This commission is one of many worldwide that have had an impact on decreasing violations and abuses of human rights, according to a new study by Stanford education Professor Francisco Ramirez.

Are government-sponsored human rights commissions and treaties mere window dressing, or do they lead to real reductions of violations and abuses?

The question is particularly relevant given studies showing that levels of repression and abuse seem to increase in countries that ratify human rights treaties.

New research coming out of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the University of Utah finds that whether national human rights institutions (NHRIs) are created with sincere intentions or not, they do lead to decreases in a country's human rights violations. The effect is felt only for the more blatant and obvious physical incidents, such as torture, unjust murder and arbitrary imprisonment, and not for civil and political rights, such as the right to vote and freedom of speech, assembly and religion.

The reduction in such "physical integrity" abuses is seen only about five years after NHRIs are established. Before then, a seeming spike in violations does appear. Sociologist Francisco Ramirez, a co-author of the study and a professor of education at Stanford, explained that this is the result of an increase in the reporting of such abuses rather than an increase in abuse itself.

"A good analog here is the creation of a sexual harassment policy or workshop," said Ramirez, who analyzed data on NHRIs from 1981 to 2004 with Wade Cole of the University of Utah. "In the short run it shouldn't surprise you if you get an increase in sexual harassment incidents, because people are now much more empowered to report them. Once the policy begins to take effect, you see a shift in behavior and a decline in such events."

The study results were published in the August issue of American Sociological Review.

Ramirez has a long-term interest in the worldwide rise in human rights concern that has taken place in the wake of the atrocities of World War II. "The issue goes beyond the question of citizenship rights, where rights are a contract between individuals and the state. It has to do with inherent rights that every state needs to respect," he said.

The matter hits home personally for the sociologist, whose own plans to return to his native Philippines after completing graduate school in the United States were curtailed when his country's government declared martial law in 1972.

Along with many observers, Ramirez noted that as more countries vie for a position on the world stage, more of them are establishing NHRIs as part of a strategy to appear "legitimate" internationally. His study with Cole thus offers a reassurance that even in cases where commissions or treaties seem contrived or are given limited mandates, their presence does lead to progress on the human rights front.

The study looks at more than 120 nations, but the paper goes into more depth on two countries with particularly poor human rights records, Indonesia and Argentina.

Indonesia still had a dictator in place when it created a human rights commission in 1993. Staffed with generals, the commission was established just before an international conference on human rights, drawing criticism that President Suharto had created it simply to make the country look good.

Chris WesselmanFrancisco Ramirez

Education Professor Francisco Ramirez

"In fact, the members of this commission began to take their role at least somewhat seriously," said Ramirez. "They began to identify prisoners who had been jailed without a clear charge or trial, for example. So the unintended consequence of creating that commission was to get the human rights ball rolling, and five years down the line there was an overall decrease in abuses."

In the case of Argentina, a change in government led to the formation of a commission to investigate past human rights abuses. But an economic downturn in the 1990s provoked a retrenchment and the return to the use of excessive force, torture and arbitrary detainments in that already beleaguered country. Then with the economic stability of Néstor Kirchner's presidency after 2003 came a new set of human right reforms. As fits the pattern found by Ramirez and Cole, the immediate effect was an upward swing in reports of abuses, followed by a decline over time.

As to why the presence of NHRIs leads to a reduction in physical-integrity human rights violations, but not civil or political ones, Ramirez said it has to do with a lack of commitment to the latter on the part of many countries.

"There are differing degrees to which countries see things like the repression of free speech and the right to vote as problems," he observed. "In contrast, nearly every country agrees that things like torture and extrajudicial killing are serious issues, so this is where human rights organizations have also put their pressure. This also shows us that where there is worldwide consensus on certain principles, those principles are consequential. Where there isn't, those principles are less so."

Ramirez is also interested in how human rights are increasingly being seen as an educational issue rather than a strictly legal one. "We see a significant increase in the appearance of the topic of human rights in textbooks worldwide over the past 30 years, for example," he noted. "This tells us not only that human rights are coming to the fore as an important issue in our world, but also that education is seen as a central institution for disseminating awareness about critical matters of our times. That's cause for optimism."

Marguerite Rigoglioso writes frequently for the Graduate School of Education.

Francisco Ramirez, Graduate School of Education: (650) 723-8421,

Jonathan Rabinovitz, Graduate School of Education: (650) 724-9440,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,