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More than smoke and mirrors: citizen perceptions of human rights

Study finds that Mexicans’ perceptions of human rights protections are linked to individuals’ evaluations of their leaders, their government and democratization. A contribution to openGlobalRights debate on Public Opinion and Human Rights. Español

Scholars and practitioners, from Alexis de Tocqueville to the United Nations, have long argued about the connection between democracy and human rights.

Democratizing states promise improved human rights practices, and liberal democracies embody many core human rights principles. Further, democratic institutions are often necessary to safeguard human rights and implement international human rights laws. This is not to suggest that democracies fully protect human rights or that all democracies provide the same levels of human rights protections. This also does not imply that non-democracies cannot protect human rights. Instead, the purported connection between democracy and human rights suggests that stronger democracies bring better human rights protections.

Missing from these arguments, however, is how citizens themselves understand the connection between human rights and democracy.

The more citizens believe their human rights to be protected, the more likely they are to support their president, government and the democratization process itself. In a recently published article in the academic journal Democratization, we suggest that citizens in emerging democracies use their perceptions of human rights to evaluate the performance of democratically elected leaders. The more citizens believe their human rights to be protected, the more likely they are to support their president, government and the democratization process itself.

We study this process in Mexico, a country that began its democratization experiment 15 years ago. As former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda stressed earlier on openGlobalRights, Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, should take note of how highly Mexican citizens value human rights. Our study, “Perceived human rights and support for new democracies: lessons from Mexico,” echoes Castañeda’s views.

Before presenting our findings, however, two disclaimers are in order. First, our study looks at citizens’ perceptions of human rights, rather than the state of human rights policies or practices. Individual perceptions of human rights are a critical, if understudied, component of human rights research. How individuals perceive human rights in an emerging democracy, and their evaluation of the changing political environment, are related. The question we analyzed in 2003 was “How much respect is there for human rights nowadays in our country?” The question in 2010 was, “On a scale from 1-10, where 1 means ‘none at all’ and 10 means ‘very much,’ how much respect is there in your state for human rights?”  

Second, our study is limited to Mexico during the first decade after the defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, according to its Spanish language initials), following the country’s first fully contested presidential elections in 2000. That year, the PRI’s presidential candidate ran against contenders from the other two main political parties: the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), and the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). The winner was the PAN’s Vicente Fox.

Studying the connection between individuals’ perceptions of human rights and their support for democratization and democratically elected leaders in Mexico during the 2000-2010 time period is important for several reasons. First, as previous openGlobalRights authors suggest, Mexico occupies an important position among newly democratized states: a relatively wealthy democracy that interacts heavily with international human rights institutions. Yet, it has also faced economic fluctuations and the brutality of the war on drugs. As a result, Mexico is a crucial site for evaluating the importance of human rights among citizens.

Further, in 2010, Mexico experienced heavy violence driven by the war on drugs as well as the beginnings of its recovery from the 2008-2009 recession. In analyzing public opinion data from that year, we expected human rights to have little effect on citizens’ evaluation of government performance and that constituents would be most concerned with issues like restoring law and order, and revamping the economy. Our findings, however, show that even while facing a serious national security crisis and being in the early stages of economic recovery, Mexicans’ perception of human rights were strongly linked to their support for democratically elected leaders and democratization. Given these results, we expect this connection to appear in less adverse situations as well.


Flickr/Presidencia de la República Mexicana (Some rights reserved)

"President Peña Nieto and other political elites must recognize that human rights protections in new democracies cannot just be smoke and mirrors."


Our study relied on two nationally representative surveys: the 2003 Mexican Values Survey (MVS 2003) and the 2010 National Survey of Values that Unite and Divide Mexicans (NSVUDM 2010). By examining the link between citizens’ perception of human rights and support for democracy in 2003, when Mexican democratization was in its early stages, and again after democracy had more firmly taken root in 2010, we were able to evaluate whether this relationship held at different stages of democratic consolidation.

Our statistical analyses controlled for ideology, political party identification, sociotropic evaluations of the macro-level Mexican economy, indicators of economic satisfaction at the household level, perceptions of bureaucratic efficiency under democracy and some key demographics.

The MVS 2003 surveyed 2,380 Mexican adults during the midterm elections of former Mexican president Vicente Fox’s first term in office (2000-2006). The NSVUDM 2010 surveyed 15,910 Mexican adults on the eve of the country’s centennial celebrations of the Mexican revolution, and bicentennial of the country’s independence (2010).

The original questionnaires in both surveys contained questions about citizen perceptions of human rights, as well as individual levels of support for the president, attitudes towards government, and support for democratic rule.

The results from these two different points in time were similar—the more citizens believed their human rights to be protected, the more likely they were to support their president, government, and democracy overall. Conversely, the less individuals believed their human rights to be protected, the less likely they were to offer their political support.

See, for example, Figures 1 and 2, below.

Figure 1 illustrates our main finding: as respondents’ perceptions of respect for human rights improve, so too did their support of President Fox, regardless of the respondents’ party affiliation.

Notably, as Figure 2 demonstrates, this connection between perceptions of human rights and support for democratization and democratically elected leaders held across a seven year window, during which Mexicans experienced economic growth, deep recession and slow recovery as well as the ravages of the drug war on both human rights and government security and legitimacy.

The implications of our findings are straightforward: even when accounting for individual variations and other issues affecting the country, Mexicans’ perceptions of human rights protections are significantly correlated to individuals’ evaluations of their leaders, their government and democratization.

What this suggests is that democratically elected leaders need to do more than simply pay lip service to human rights. Today in Mexico, for example, it will not be sufficient for President Peña Nieto to depict the tragedies in Iguala and Tlatlaya as isolated incidents or to cover-up security forces’ involvement in an alarming number of enforced disappearance cases. Facing mass protests across the country and dropping approval ratings, President Peña Nieto and other political elites must recognize that human rights protections in new democracies cannot just be smoke and mirrors.

Instead, these protections must be lived and experienced—indeed, perceived—by voters.

About the authors

Dona-Gene Barton is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her research on opinion formation processes and public perceptions has been published in the American Journal of Political Science, Political Psychology, Electoral Studies and Democratization.

Dona-Gene Barton es profesora asociada del Departamento de Ciencia Política de la University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sus investigaciones sobre los procesos de formación de opinión y percepciones públicas se han publicado en American Journal of Political Science, Political Psychology, Electoral Studies y Democratization.

Courtney Hillebrecht is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Courtney Hillebrecht es profesora asistente en el Departamento de Ciencia Política de la Universidad de Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sergio Wals is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute for Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His research agenda centers on the relationship between democracy and individual perceptions of politics and topics related to immigration both in the United States and Latin America.

Sergio Wals es profesor asistente del Departamento de Ciencia Política y el Instituto de Estudios Étnicos de la University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sus intereses de investigación se centran en la relación entre la democracia y las percepciones individuales de la política y los temas relacionados con la inmigración tanto en los Estados Unidos como en Latinoamérica.

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