The Index of Human Rights (Governance)

A modest proposal to reduce oppression and "humanitarian" wars by measuring and influencing the actions of governments: before it resorts to military action, the UN needs to put in place a non-violent system that rewards good governance and penalises governments that are tending towards oppression and genocide.


NEWS of the Index

Report on the Global Human Rights Index

The Green Party of England and Wales has adopted the Index as policy

The Index is the next logical step now that the UN has adopted a Responsibility to Protect stance.

Index of Human Rights in the UN: Improving Governance at International Level


Iraq in 2007 is a tragic, bloody mess as a result of the violent intervention led by the USA.

But for all of us who opposed the war, this question remains:

"What would you have done to end Saddam Hussein's reign of terror? Or to stop the genocide in Rwanda, or the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo?"

There is a way forward through measuring the human rights performance of the world's governments, and applying rewards for good practice and disincentives for bad practice.

The effects of an IHR will be to:
  1. provide a continuous motivational force for governments to improve their human rights record.
  2. show year-on-year progress (or regress) of all states.
  3. cause release of political prisoners as governments seek to improve their standing.
  4. enable low scoring countries to seek and receive assistance in improving their performance
  5. diminish the possibility of the UN having to make military R2P interventions.
  6. Lessen the tendency for political caprice to determine who is and is not regarded as a rogue state.
  7. pave the way for the worst offenders to be brought to court and penalised with a tariff of smart sanctions designed to hinder and disable the ruling elite of states that fail to protect the human rights of their citizens.

It is proposed to use a modification of the 1990s Observer Index of Human Rights as the instrument, and to make its annual publication an integral part of the United Nations membership process.

Later, the worst performing governments could be tried in an international Court, and if the human rights abuses are upheld, will experience targeted sanctions.

The Problem

The problem with tyranny lies in the way governments are accepted by the international community. Anyone who controls the army and the police is accepted as the legitimate government. For our leaders, the question is not, "Is this a decent government dedicated to justice?" but "Will he align with us or with some other bloc? Will he trade with us? He may be a wrongdoer, but is he our wrongdoer?"

Tyranny is tolerated and overlooked by governments when it suits them, but when it becomes expedient or desirable to do so, the tyrant that our leaders have been supporting may be denounced in the UN and at home. He is described as "the new Hitler" in our media. Full on sanctions are applied. Later, the bombing starts. His people are killed as collateral damage, his country is reduced to rubble, and the development process is set back by decades. All the while, our government and those of our allies present themselves as "democratic" and therefore above reproach.

This is not a good management strategy. The right way to change behaviour is through consistency and the setting of clear boundaries.

This simplistic and capricious good/bad categorisation is not a true representation of the situation. Standards of governance range on a continuum from the reasonably good (e.g. Scandinavian) through the indifferent to the thoroughly unpleasant (e.g. Hussein's Iraq, Burma, Zimbabwe).

In order to reflect this continuum, a league table of governmental performance can be created, so that governments could see how they match up on an objective set of criteria. It would be a measuring rule to rate the quality of governance of any state. In this way, what constitutes a legitimate Government would move from the de facto towards the de jure - from deriving authority from pure power to deriving it from justice.

Oppression Leads to War

George W Bush's Operation Iraqi Liberation shows that violent overthrow of oppressive regimes causes as many problems as it solves. The arbitrary and illegal actions of the US-led "Coalition of the willing" have caused unprecedented hostility and controversy world wide. Yet on the other hand few people support the idea that the international community should sit back in a spirit of laissez faire and watch while atrocities and genocide take place as in Rwanda and Kosovo. We have to address the question of what to do about regimes who use torture, murder and genocide.

In September 2005 the UN Summit in New York took on board the doctrine of Responsiblity to Protect (R2P) with the following words: "We ... intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to help states build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assist those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out...we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the UN Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case by case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate... "

Chapter VII enables the UN to authorise military action against a state.
This leaves the UN in a position of being prepared to use violence in which innocent bystanders are bound to be injured and killed. This may ultimately become necessary, but before it resorts to military action, the UN needs to put in place a non-violent system that rewards good governance and penalises governments that are tending towards oppression and genocide.

One important lesson to be learned from Iraq is the danger of lawlessness when an authoritarian regime is removed. It should have been anticipated because to a lesser extent, there was a similar reaction after the fall of Communism, and after the fall of the right wing regimes in Portugal and Spain. It might prove to be the case be the case that gradual change, although it is slower, and therefore prolongs the suffering under the tyrant, is better in the long run because it may minimise the lawlessness (not to say anarchy) that follows the sudden collapse of a repressive regime.

The Index of Governance

The performance of any institution can be measured. There are instruments in existence which can form the basis for measuring governmental performance. The Observer Index of Human Rights (,2763,201762,00.html ) is a good working model. (If the link above does not work, go to the observer website and search Index of Human Rights). It was compiled in two ways. The first - the simple ranking - represents the incidence of headline abuses of human rights over 13 categories, including:

  • the use of torture;
  • scale of disappearances (these critical indicators marked out of 30);
  • use of the death penalty;
  • denial of free speech;
  • political rights;
  • abuse of political prisoners
  • denial of free movement,
  • child rights;
  • religious freedom;
  • fair trial;
  • minority rights; and
  • women's rights.

The total for each country was then multiplied by its score on the Human Development Index (HDI), as defined by the United Nations, to avoid unfairly penalising less-developed countries. Some people find this kind of weighting objectionable, arguing that torture and killing is absolutely morally repugnant no matter who authorises it. The opposite view is based on the premise that "To whom much has been given, from them more will be expected." The clinching argument for this adjustment is that it removes a block on its acceptability by the majority. It is better to have some control on torture than no control on torture.

A similar approach has been also been developed in the Political Terror Scale which was created in 1983 by Michael Stohl at Purdue University, and is currently maintained by Mark Gibney. It is a graded scale for measuring human rights violation and was adapted from work originally published by Raymond Gastil of Freedom House in 1979. The raw information for the scale comes from the United States Department of State (marked with an s on the tables) and Amnesty International Annual (column marked a) reports on countries' Human Rights practices. The data is graded into categories of 1 to 5, with best human rights practices ranked as 1 and the worst at 5. There is no adjustment for stage of development. The scores can be viewed here.

Surprisingly, the World Bank in 1999 published a report which comes to the conclusion that good governance, which they measured under the headings of

  • Voice and accountability, democracy, free expression, free association, media
  • political stability, absence of violence
  • governance quality
  • regulatory quality - permitting private sector development
  • rule of law
  • corruption

    will lead to economic prosperity. They also defended the measurements as robust.

Of course, a variety of other factors could be added in to these instruments, for example:
    • Non possession of weapons of mass destruction
    • Low Military/Social budget ratio
    • A convergent economy, that is, an economy in which the ratio of incomes of the highest and lowest parts of the population are tending towards the median.
Dr Marie Besancon has reviewed the range of instruments available to measure governance. In her report "Good Governance rankings: the art of measurement" she lists 47 different methods of measuring governance - although she does not mention human rights as a main indicator.
Although a broader approach would give a better picture of a government's performance, the increased complexity would inevitably give rise to complex objections and appeals that would slow the process down. The focus on human rights stands as a simple proxy for the other actions of a government, and it is likely that it would also be an accurate indicator of the global performance.
One of the advantages of using human rights abuses is that we are not dependent on (possibly unreliable) government data, since friends and relatives of detainees will be motivated to provide information to the UN Governance agency.
As well as the Human Development Index, a weighting or an allowance could be applied to allow for the extent to which the writ of a regime may or may not run in the territory for which it is nominally resposible. Some governments may not have full ability to control what goes on in their country. However, this consideration should not be used to indemnify governments for responsibility for their own agents.
The final form of the UN index will emerge from negotiations at UN level, so it is not necessary to perfect them here. It is sufficient to say that to create an Index of Governance based on human rights would not be a difficult or expensive task, and it could be run by a modest secretariat within the UN, on an on-going basis.

Effects of installing the Index

    1. The very act of creating the Index would have a therapeutic effect. Governments, even tyrannical ones, are sensitive to public opinion, as evidenced by the success of Amnesty International's letter writing campaigns over individual cases. There will be a natural desire to rate more highly in the Index.
    2. All parties know where they stand, instead of the arbitrary and ad hoc way that tyrants are dealt with at present. The demonisation of one tyrant (prior to waging war) will be less easy to do if everyone knows that he is only, say, 6th from the bottom on the Index.
    3. Governments will doubtless appeal against their ratings. The UN can set a time to send in inspectors to review the conditions in the country. Regimes will tend to release prisoners and improve other conditions prior to the appeals inspection.
    4. Some countries may accept advice and assistance in improving their human rights performance. Mediation could be set up to initiate dialogue with opposition groups.
    5. Finally, when the Index is established, it can be used to bring specific legal action and targeted sanctions to bear on the very worst offenders.

Enforcing good behaviour with Smart or Targeted Sanctions

This is the second phase of the initiative, which will take a longer time to install.
The use of sanctions was successful in the cases of South Africa and Libya, but the effects of sanctions against Saddam Hussein caused severe suffering to the Iraqi people. In order to avoid this, sanctions in future should be designed specifically to affect the ruling elite of the country and not the general public. Smart Sanctions have been examined extensively in the late 1990s, and there is a great deal of confidence that they can be employed to curb the regime without hurting the common people. They are primarily financial measures. It is very possible that banks will resist the kind of interventions required by smart sanctions, so a head of political steam will have to be created before this can go forward.
There are other measures that can be brought apart from sanctions, such as supporting opposition groups.
The 192 or so governments on the UN Index will be grouped into a convenient number of bands according to their score, so that each government will belong to either a top, middle, low or lowest band. In practice, it will be necessary to leave more than three quarters of the UN members in their present state, and apply disincentives only to a minority of governments. This is necessary because if the majority were to lose out under the system, it would not be possible to vote the system into being.
A legal process will be followed before sanctions of any level of severity are applied. The International Criminal Court, or a branch of that Court, or another Court set up for the process, should check out the accuracy of the data that the Index is based on. The ICC will of course still be free to investigate cases of abuse in countries that may rank higher in the Index; but countries in the lowest band of the Index will automatically receive legal attention. In this way the capricious and unpredictable politically motivated behaviour of the superpower referred to above, and exemplified in the case of Saddam Hussein, will be avoided.
The lowest 10, say, of the poorly performing governments should fall into the "failing state" bracket that receives disincentives. This group might be divided into perhaps, two bands, with the upper five receiving intensive help to enable them to escape falling into the sanctions bracket, and the lowest 5 (or even less, perhaps starting with one and building up as the scheme progresses) actually receiving sanctions. Or the sanctions could be graded, with first one, then two then more being applied as the Index score (legally ratified in the Court) falls to lower levels.
Here are some possible mild sanctions:
    • Loss of the right to take a seat on the UN Security Council, or take up other responsible positions.
    • Loss of specified voting rights in UN, with diminution of the power of the country's vote
    • Assistance given to democratic opposition groups who support principles of good governance.
    • Tightened border controls, in readiness for sanctions on arms related materials.
    • Loss of ability to receive loans, for instance for some state-run enterprises.
    • Restriction on government members' ability to use airlines.
    • Restrictions on visa issues to members of the Government.
If the country falls further down the scale, graduated sanctions are introduced progressively, such as:
    • Prohibition of specified financial transactions
    • freezing of accounts of government officials
    • ban on imports of all lethal goods
    • ban on imports of dual purpose technology
    • ban on imports of chemical weapon precursors
    • ban on imports of biotechnology
    • ban on imports of nuclear technology
    • ban on imports of wines and spirits
    • ban on imports of tobacco, cars, oil & oil products, and luxury items. (These are often used by oppressive regimes to buy loyalty)
For those with worse records, or in the case of governments who fail to reform despite being under milder sanctions, opposition groups will be supported with financial and logistical help, provided that they support the principles of good governance.
Finally, if the regime still refuses to improve, or if it is engaging in ethnic cleansing or genocide, these opposition parties could be entrusted and empowered with responsibility for imports of, and fair distribution of, necessities like food and medicines. This would give them practice in the arts of co-operation (with each other) and administration, enabling them to prepare for government.
If necessary, the distribution efforts will be protected by UN forces, which would finally, and regrettably but necessarily, lead on to the kind of "Responsibility to Protect" military measures being contemplated by UN General Secretary Kofi Anan and the Canadian Commission.


Despite its advantages, the second part of this proposal will be very difficult to implement, and will raise many objections, which are set out below and on the FAQ page.

"The proposal runs counter to the aims and practices of the WTO"

Agreed. The central objection of the anti-globalisation campaign is that globalisation sets free trade above human and environmental values. There is a direct contradiction between the aims of the World Trade Organisation and the aims of the human rights, green and peace movements. The WTO and associated organisations must be challenged to assent to these proposals as their contribution towards the effort to improve the lot of humankind. There is no better time than the present to make this challenge.

"America (or China, or dictatorsip of your choice) would never agree to it"

The fact (or possibility) that bad people will obstruct good initiatives is not a valid reason to give up. America cannot remain forever in the grip of people like George W Bush. There are signs that his regime is already beginning to run out of steam. The UN has a good record of putting good measures in place in the teeth of opposition from selfish politicians.

"The proposal challenges the notion of absolute sovereignty"

The doctrine of state sovereignty was introduced about five hundred years ago to end the meddling of the Pope in secular affairs and is well overdue for revision. We are under no illusions as to how difficult it will be to institutionalise this system of international standards of governance. What leader of a country is going to let go of any degree of his sovereign power to a council of his peers, even if it is in the cause of inhibiting wars and terrorism? A great deal of pressure from "civil society" (citizens and NGOs) will be necessary. There is a discernible current of thinking within the UN that is questioning the notion of absolute sovereignty.
The political difficulty can be overcome by the use of the Simultaneous Policy tactic, which asks politicians if they would pledge to implement a measure on condition that a majority of other politicians would do the same.

"This is the old idea of World Government"

This is not the case. World Government implies a standard regime affecting all aspects of behaviour; this proposal is restricted to prevention of inhumane activity.

"This is not enough of itself to bring about peace and justice"

It is not claimed that the IoG alone is sufficient to change the political culture of oppression, tyrrany and war. It is claimed that alongside other measures such as reform of the UN, wider ranging powers for the International Criminal Court, and greater democratisation of international affairs, it will play its part in bringing about a fairer and more peaceful world. The Movement to Abolish War has a useful overview of some of the other measures required. Dan Plesch's Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace and War No More by Rotblat and Hinde are useful texts.

"Oppressive regimes will simply walk out of the UN"

This is a major risk of this strategy. It must be recognised that the UN is severely under-resourced - its total budget is less than Britain's military expenditure, and its establishment is less than the NHS establishment in Wales. The UN must be supported, expanded, fully resourced and reformed. The UNA and Action for UN Reform are organisations that are concerned with this.

One of the key reforms needed for the UN is that it should be democratised, with UN representatives being directly elected by each country, rather than mere appointees of the government of that country. Many other reforms are currently being considered within the UN.
It may take years or decades to implement the full Index of Governance with the smart sanction component in place; but the simple measure of performance alone could be implemented in the near future, if sufficient pressure could be generated by the green, peace and human rights movements acting together.


Opressive regimes cause suffering to the people who fall within their power, with genocide, torture, disappearances, ethnic cleansing and imprisonment being the worst. These actions cannot be tolerated, but in addition, these regimes are more likely to get involved in wars. Even more, the UN is gearing up to prosecute wars against regimes which are practicing ethnic cleansing and genocide. At the time of writing (May 2005) there is a building head of steam calling for intervention in Sudan because of the ethnic cleansing and genocide being carried out in Darfur.
Modern wars are so destructive, whether fought with high explosives or machetes, that we must create a political framework that makes war less likely. This central reality is the motivation that will help us slowly to overcome the self-interest of politicians.
The choice before the world is clear: either continue as we are with absolutely sovereign states oppressing their people and going to war with each other, or we form a community of states who are signed up to a common set of ground rules, and in which poor governance is inhibited by loss of privilege and trading disadvantages.


Development of the Index of Governance proposal

The Index of Governance proposal has been :
    • discussed at the 2004 conference of the Medical and Scientific Network, achieving majority approval.

    • published on the CultureChange website owned by the environmentalist Jan Lundberg

    • adopted as policy at the Green Party Conference in Lancaster 2005.

    • Discussed on the Monbiot forum and at the Green Party Conference Spring 2005

    • Weblished on the Global Ideas Bank site.

    • A version of this page was published in Quaker Monthly in February 2005 and later an article in the Friend.

    • A referenced article was published in July 2005 in the journal Medicine, Conflict and Survival

    • Correspondence has gone to the FCO and Sir Emyr Jones Parry, UK Representative to the UN.

    Next moves

    The Index is currently being considered by the Boards of the UK UNA (United Nations Association) and also Board of Amnesty International UK.

    The AGM of Medact on April 23rd 2005 decided to ask the Board to look at the proposal (keeping an eye on what Amnesty decided).

    Support is being sought from many other organisation concerned with peace and human rights.

    If you would like to be kept up to date with developments with this initiative, please use the Contact link.

    If you would like to help, please write to any peace and human rights organisation that you know, asking them to adopt the Index of Governance initiative. At this stage we need to raise consciousness of this as a possibility. When a good number of NGOs are on board, we will start lobbying national governments and within the United Nations.

    Richard Lawson

© 2001 R. LawsonThis page was last updated on16.6.2007