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Made to measure? Using public policy guidelines as human rights benchmarks

By Allison Corkery, Director of CESR's Rights Claiming and Accountability program.

Last month, I joined a group of practitioners and academics from diverse disciplines for a workshop organized by the Human Rights Methodology Lab. The Lab is a joint initiative of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law. At each of the Lab’s workshops, participants share advice, critiques, and concrete suggestions on how a specific advocacy-oriented human rights research project in early stages of development might incorporate multidisciplinary methodologies.

The project discussed at the last workshop focused on the right to mental health in the context of armed conflict. This incredibly complex and multifaceted topic prompted a rich and wide-ranging discussion among the participants. We debated the relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law in protecting economic, social and cultural rights; the strengths and weaknesses of zooming in on individual violations versus zooming out to look at the issue more systematically; and which of the various actors responsible for the right to mental health should be targeted in advocacy – during the conflict, as well as in the peacebuilding and transitional period following it.  

One particularly interesting methodological question was the use of public health guidelines as indicators and benchmarks for measuring compliance with human rights norms. The humanitarian community has developed various standards and guidelines on mental health. The most comprehensive of these is the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. The Guidelines recommend a number of ‘key actions’ for protecting and improving mental health and psychosocial wellbeing and suggest various ‘process’ indicators for each action.

On the face of it, these guidelines have a lot to offer in deepening our understanding of norms that underpin the right to mental health. For example, they set out the specific kinds of steps that might be needed to discharge the obligation ‘to take steps’ to progressively realize the right to health and they outline the types of infrastructure, goods and services that need to be ‘available, accessible, acceptable and of adequate quality’, in line with international human rights standards. However, the guidelines are explicit that they are not minimum standards.

For this reason, importing guidelines and standards from other fields as proxy measures of human rights norms, without carefully weighing up their suitability, can be problematic. An oft-cited example of this is the Millennium Development Goal indicator on the percentage of the world’s population that had access to ‘improved’ water sources. The World Health Organization, as well as many others, critiqued the use of this indicator as a proxy for the right to water and sanitation, as the definition of ‘improved’ does not address the safety and sustainability of a water source, crucial dimensions of this right.

Nevertheless, a challenge for human rights researchers is that there is really very little guidance on what kinds of criteria we should be considering when weighing up the suitability of standards from other fields. This is a challenge we discussed at the workshop; it’s also a challenge we’ve recently sought to address in one of CESR’s current projects. As part of this project, we’re working with a number of partners to design a country level ‘scorecard’ on the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. The guiding questions we have proposed researchers consider in weighing up the normative strength of such standards, in order to give a ‘good’ score on a particular indicator include:   


  • Does the standard help concretize the terminology used to interpret a norm? Norms are often interpreted using adjectives such as ‘adequate’ or ‘reasonable’, or other normative terms such as ‘equally’ or ‘for all’. The more explicitly the standard measures such a term, the more suitable it should be as a normative measure.
  • How legitimate was the process for establishing the standard? To be human rights-based, the process should be open and transparent and should involve affected communities, so that it is informed by their expectation of what is reasonable, adequate or just.
  • How much consensus has grown around the standard? The greater the consensus, the stronger the justification for using the standard from a normative standpoint

Wh ile by no means comprehensive, these questions offer a starting point to foster dialogue on how standards from other fields can be used more strategically in human rights work.

In a time when effective and inter-disciplinary innovation in human rights advocacy is more urgent than ever, spaces such as the Methodology Lab are so badly needed. Here at CESR, we will continue to seek out opportunities to exchange insights, challenges and lessons learned from innovative monitoring practices, particularly as they address the specific challenges of economic and social rights research.