Commissioner Hammarberg’s latest Viewpoint

[17/08/09] A gap still exists between the rights proclaimed in human rights treaties and the reality in member states. Closing this implementation gap is crucial for all human rights work today. It requires a systematic approach, including effective collection of relevant data and comprehensive planning through a participatory process. An important element in this endeavour is to define meaningful indicators which can be used to assess progress.

Indicators make human rights planning and implementation processes more efficient and transparent. They make it easier to hold governments accountable for the realisation of human rights and also help highlight success through accurate criteria. Moreover, indicators have great potential for clarifying and communicating the practical content of human rights in concrete situations.

Not surprisingly, the discussion about human rights indicators has largely been initiated by international bodies set up to monitor the realisation of the agreed standards. Various Council of Europe structures as well as UNICEF, the UN Development Programme and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all sought to define relevant human rights indicators, generally or in specific fields.

The discussion is ongoing. It is understood that all aspects of human rights cannot be measured through statistical information and that there is also a need to assess qualitative aspects – for example, the competence of judges may be more relevant than their number. Another problem is that quantitative data does not always exist or may be unreliable.

A useful model has been developed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in its efforts to facilitate country monitoring carried out by the UN treaty bodies.1  This approach has produced three categories of indicators: structural, process and outcome indicators.

  • Structural indicators look at the ratification of international treaties and the existence of laws and basic institutional mechanisms for the protection of human rights;
  • Process indicators assess state policies and specific measures undertaken to implement commitments;
  • Outcome indicators measure the individual and collective attainments that reflect the degree of realisation of human rights in the given context.
Example I
The right of detainees to basic standards

– The structural indicators would assess to what extent the relevant international treaties have been ratified and the laws have incorporated protection against torture, but also whether a national monitoring mechanism had been established;

– The process indicators would focus on the number and nature of complaints and responses and the cooperation with the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). Detailed indicators would assess the extent to which standards are met for floor space, cubic content of air, heating, inmate/staff ratio, food, health care facilities and the training of prison staff;

– The outcome indicators would focus on the actual health of inmates, reported cases of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and the proportion of victims who have received compensation or rehabilitation.

  Example II
The right to primary education

– The structural indicators would deal with responses to international standards as well as provisions in national law. Likewise, they include the coverage of the national plan of action in relation to the principle of compulsory and free primary education;

– The process indicators would include data about the budget for education and response to complaints or recommendations from national or international monitoring bodies. Other indicators may highlight differences between public and private schools, response to reports of violence, teacher/pupil ratios and the proportion of children being taught in their mother language;

– The outcome indicators would include enrolment, drop-out and completion ratios, including for special groups like minorities and children with disabilities.

The use of indicators in this manner is becoming more and more common. The Council of Europe has prepared rights-based indicators to measure component parts of social cohesion for the implementation of its Strategy for Social Cohesion.2 The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) recently published child rights indicators to measure the impact of EU law and policy on the ability of children to exercise their rights.3

However, the full use of human rights indicators as an assessment tool depends largely on relevant and reliable data. Different types of data are necessary in order to get a comprehensive and valid picture. Certainly, non-governmental organisations, national human rights structures and the media are valuable sources of information on human rights violations.

Governments all over Europe have established official statistical systems which nowadays normally provide information related to school enrolment, employment rates, access to social services and health care. In fact, an effective national statistical office is an important instrument for human rights reform.

Disaggregated data based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and age, is crucial. It is a shortcoming that they are not available in some cases as such information can help to expose discriminatory practices. Collection can be a complex task. People might, for good reasons, be unwilling to disclose their ethnic background or sexual orientation. Such data should be collected on a voluntary basis and coupled with proper safeguards to respect the privacy of the persons involved.

The indicators themselves must also be defined with some care. They should be relevant to the context in which they are applied. One way to ensure the relevance and feasibility of indicators is to involve those directly concerned, for example the relevant public authorities, national human rights structures and non-governmental organizations.

The use of human rights indicators at the local level has great potential. Information on human rights violations or on progress achieved in municipalities and regions is highly relevant for decision-making both at the local and national level.

The use of indicators should be seen as part of a broader process of systematic work for implementing human rights. Together with national action plans, baseline studies and rights-based governance, indicators are a tool for enforcing human rights.

Thomas Hammarberg


  1. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on indicators for promoting and monitoring the implementation of human rights, 6 June 2008, HRI/MC/2008/3.
  2. Concerted development of social cohesion indicators – Methodological guide. Council of Europe, 2005.
  3. Developing indicators for the protection, respect and promotion of the rights of the child in the European Union. Summary report. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, March 2009.


Recommendation of the Commissioner for Human Rights on systematic work for implementing human rights at the national level, CommDH(2009)3.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on indicators for promoting and monitoring the implementation of human rights, 6 June 2008, HRI/MC/2008/3.

Indicators for Human Rights based Approaches to Development in UNDP Programming: A Users’ Guide. UNDP, March 2006.

Developing indicators for the protection, respect and promotion of the rights of the child in the European Union. Summary report. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, March 2009.

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