Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Data-driven optimism for global rights activists

Opinion polls across four world regions suggest that human rights activists can be cautiously optimistic—the public likes and trusts them. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Public Opinion and Human Rights.   EspañolFrançais, العربية

To succeed, local human rights groups must have some level of local support. Local groups can always call on foreigners for help, but lasting change requires domestic buy-in from politicians, state agents and ordinary people. Politicians need to feel the human rights heat from constituents, officials need to believe that human rights groups are credible, and members of the public need to contribute their voice, money and energies.

Human rights activists are often pessimistic about the public’s views, believing their co-citizens view them with skepticism, or worse. According to our surveys in four world regions, however, the public views human rights ideas and organizations positively. Critical claims that human rights workers are linked to foreign powers and intervention, moreover, receive scant public support. Our data suggest that rights activists can feel cautiously optimistic about their public reputations.

Activist perceptions, public surveys

To learn how activists see themselves, we first interviewed hundreds of human rights experts, activists and workers across 60 countries, asking them to comment on how the public viewed them, their organizations, and their issues. Some believed their compatriots viewed them positively, as courageous campaigners for justice. Most, however, felt embattled, disliked, or disregarded.

To test the activists’ perceptions against actual public attitudes, we inserted our questions into an ongoing public survey, Mexico, Americas, and the World, run by CIDE, a leading Mexican research institute. Their team administered our questions to a nationally representative sample of adults in Mexico (N=2,400) in 2012.

Based on that experience, we developed our Human Rights Perceptions Poll, a unique battery of questions about public attitudes towards human rights issues, activists, and organizations. We deployed the poll in Morocco and India in 2012 and in Nigeria in 2014. We surveyed representative samples of urban and rural populations in and around Rabat and Casablanca (N=1,100); India’s major financial capital, Mumbai (N=1,680); and Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos (N=1,000). We over-sampled rural populations and ethnic or religious minorities to gather sufficient data from marginalized perspectives. We weight our results to account for this over-sampling.

David Crow (All rights reserved)

Pilot testing the survey in Morocco, September 2012.

We worked with local companies in each country to administer the surveys, including Data OPM in Mexico, LMS-CSA in Casablanca, Team C-Voter in Delhi, and Practical Sampling International in Lagos.

We chose these countries for a variety of reasons. They differ dramatically on factors such as history, colonial background, religious tradition, language, and region. Given this variation, any cross-country similarities powerfully suggest broader global trends.

Yet the four cases also meet conditions that make studying rights meaningful and safe. They all have substantial, rights-inclined civil societies, and all have sufficient political freedom for members of the public to express political views and for pollsters to ask about human rights. Finally, all have pressing human rights problems attracting both domestic and international attention and mobilization efforts.

Data-based optimism

Our findings leave us cautiously optimistic about the human rights movement’s prospects, even in this era of increasing  government hostility towards civil society. We have published several articles from the data (see here, here and here), and are working on a book. Cumulatively, our findings leave us cautiously optimistic about the human rights movement’s prospects, even in this era of increasing government hostility towards civil society.

Consider Figure 1, which reports average responses to the question, “How strongly do you associate [phrase] with ‘human rights?’”  We asked about positive-sounding phrases, including “protecting people from torture and murder”, “promoting socio-economic justice”, and “promoting free and fair elections”; negative-sounding phrases including “protecting criminals”, “protecting terrorists”, “not protecting or promoting anyone’s interests”; and associating human rights with foreign intervention: “promoting United States interests” and “promoting foreign values and ideas.”

In all countries but Mexico, we also asked whether respondents associated “human rights” with “protecting women’s rights”, a particularly hot-button issue for rights activists worldwide.

We asked each respondent to rank the strength of their association from 1, the weakest score, to 7, the strongest. A score of 4, the midpoint, indicates respondent neutrality; scores below that indicate little or no association, while scores above that indicate an increasingly strong association.

We found some remarkably consistent results. Across all four cases, respondents were far more likely to associate human rights with positive sounding than negative-sounding phrases. Ordinary people, in other words, feel more warmth than chill towards the term, “human rights”.

Associations of human rights with foreign intervention, moreover, received little support. Weighting each country’s scores equally, the average four-country association between human rights and “promoting U.S. interests” or “promoting foreign values and ideas” was a weak 3.6, below the neutral midpoint.

Remarkably, publics also strongly associate “human rights” with “protecting women’s rights”, suggesting the women’s movement is tightly linked in the public mind with its human rights counterpart.

Figure 2 offers other promising news. We asked the 6,000+ respondents about their trust in all manner of international and domestic institutions, which we express on a range from 0 to 1, or “no trust” to “a lot of trust”. Once again, we calculate an average score for each institution to which each country contributes equally.

In all four countries, local rights groups scored towards the top of the public’s institutional trust spectrum.

Across all cases, publics express high trust in religious institutions, whose four-country average is 0.65 on the 0 (least trust) to 1 (most trust) scale. Politicians, by contrast, were among the public’s least trusted actors, with an abysmal four-country average of 0.32. Local rights groups’ average of 0.52 places them in the upper end of this 0.32 to 0.65 range.

Taken together, Figures 1 and 2 suggest that across diverse world regions, publics view human rights and local human rights organizations with favor. When we combine those who highly trust LHROs with those who most strongly associate human rights with “promoting socio economic justice” and “protecting people from torture and murder,” we find that 23% of the public, on average, are hard-core human rights supporters.

Our polls may be overly optimistic, but the odds of over 6,000 randomly selected respondents responding in remarkably consistent ways across very different countries seem low. Instead, our polls likely reveal an underlying global trend obscured in polarized, elite-level debates: ordinary people do generally support human rights ideas and groups, even though both are often widely criticized in the media.

Human rights professionals work in highly contentious settings, where critics often allege that human rights ideas and NGOs are motivated by ill intentions or the agendas of foreign powers. Ordinary people, however, seem less inclined to believe the worst of rights-based actors.

More work is required to test and extend our findings, but our research suggests that human rights promoters have reason for optimism.

About the authors

James Ron holds the Harold E. Stassen Chair for International Affairs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School for Public Affairs and Department of Political Science, and is an affiliated professor at CIDE, a Mexican research institute.

James Ron es el titular de la Cátedra Harold E. Stassen de Asuntos Internacionales de la Escuela Humphrey de Asuntos Públicos y el Departamento de Ciencia Política de la Universidad de Minnesota, y es profesor asociado en el CIDE, un instituto mexicano de investigación.

James Ron tient la chaire Harold E. Stassen pour les affaires Internationales au département de sciences politiques de l'École Humphrey pour les Affaires Publiques  de l’université du Minnesota. Il est également professeur affilié au CIDE, un institut public de recherche mexicain.

جيمس رون هو رئيس قسم هارولد إي ستاسين للشؤون الدولية في كلية همفري للشؤون العامة بجامعة مينيسوتا وقسم العلوم السياسية، وهو أستاذ منتسب في CIDE، وهو معهد بحوث مكسيكي.

Shannon Golden is a research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and holds a PhD in sociology.

Shannon Golden es becaria de investigación en la Escuela Humphrey de Asuntos Públicos de la Universidad de Minnesota, y cuenta con un doctorado en sociología.

Shannon Golden est chercheur associé à l’École Humphrey pour les Affaires Publiques de l’Université du Minnesota. Elle est titulaire d’un doctorat en sociologie.

شانون جولدن هو زميل باحث في كلية همفري للشؤون العامة بجامعة مينيسوتا، وحاصل على درجة الدكتوراه في علم الاجتماع.

David Crow is an Associate Professor in the Division for International Studies at CIDE, a leading public research institute in Mexico City.

David Crow es profesor asociado en la División de Estudios Internacionales del CIDE, una destacada institución pública de investigación en la Ciudad de México.

David Crow est professeur adjoint à la CIDE. Il est spécialisé dans la réalisation de sondages et dans la politique mexicaine.

ديفيد كرو هو أستاذ مساعد في CIDE، ومتخصص في بحوث استطلاع الرأي والسياسة المكسيكية. 

Archana Pandya is the managing editor of openGlobalRights.

Archana Pandya es la editora en jefe de openGlobalRights.

Archana Pandya est rédactrice en chef de openGlobalRights.

أرشانا بانديا هي مدير تحرير openGlobalRights.

Read On

More On

Check out James Ron's podcast "A matter of opinion: What do we really think about human rights?" on the Rights Track.

Rights Track Logo

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.