Human Rights Outcomes in Complexity and the Problem of Causation

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    The monitoring of human rights performance is increasingly a measurement exercise. This is true for the UN institutions whose role is to monitor compliance with human rights treaties; governments who fulfil their obligations to report to those institutions regarding their performance; NGOs which are engaged in applying pressure to States Parties to the relevant treaties; and human rights-interested academia. The international human rights system, to put it another way, is increasingly concerned with statistical ‘outcomes’ such as the number of children in primary education, the number of victims of domestic violence, or the number of people enrolled in public nutrition programmes - quantitative measures which are purported to demonstrate whether obligations are being fulfilled. This is part of a broader phenomenon which sees human rights success as something that can be measured through statistical techniques, and it is in turn part of a wider movement in many fields which privileges the quantifiable and measurable over the tacit or subjective. It is predicated on a given: that it is within our power to identify the causes of measured human rights outcomes. This article argues that, in fact, that given must be treated with great scepticism and suspicion, as it does not take due account of the complexity of the subject matter concerned. In fact, since human societies are areas of such great complexity, it may be impossible to properly understand what causes the great majority of what we refer to as human rights outcomes. The acuteness of the problem of credible causal inference is poorly acknowledged in much of the academic literature on human rights measurement. This paper argues that a greater degree of epistemic humility is crucial.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 24 Sept 2015
    EventA Jurisprudence of Complexity? Rethinking the Relationship between Law and Society - Lancaster University
    Duration: 24 Sept 2015 → …


    ConferenceA Jurisprudence of Complexity? Rethinking the Relationship between Law and Society
    Period24/09/15 → …
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