Keeping score in the world of human rights abuses : It is the time of year for cataloguing official misdeeds, writes Caroline Moorehead

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THE END of the year is assessment time for human rights. In Europe, Scandinavia and above all the United States, civil servants and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are busy scrutinising and measuring how countries all over the world have performed in the last 12 months.

Is Sri Lanka still 'disappearing' its trouble-making citizens? Indonesia persecuting the East Timorese? Guatemala murdering its unwanted street children?

In the weeks to come, the end-of-year reports for 1992 will see the light of day in annual reports of Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the US State Department's Country reports and the Human Rights Watch Report.

Measurement of human rights performance remains a controversial issue, particularly with governments which dislike what they see as too bald a condemnation of their misdemeanours. Most human rights organisations in fact prefer to present their evaluations country by country, with careful analyses of numbers of political prisoners and the state of play over multi-party elections, without comparing one with another.

One assessor, however, the late Charles Humana, acted entirely on his own and was seldom willing to document his sources. He died in autumn shortly after publication of his updated World Human Rights Guide. Humana's reports are competitive and statistical. Iraq, in 1992, scored 17 per cent on an overall human rights rating, New Zealand 98 per cent and Brazil 69 per cent. Crude as this index sometimes appears, there is something irresistible about comparing Humana's 1992 edition with his first, in 1983, when Iraq scored 27 per cent, New Zealand 96 per cent and Brazil 70 per cent.

Irresistible perhaps, but not everyone will agree with Humana's optimistic words in his new index that a study of his figures leads to the conclusion that human rights performance as a whole has been getting better; that in the last five years alone the average world rating has risen from 55 per cent to 62 per cent and that we are enjoying an improvement unparalleled in history.

Precise measuring in political science acquired respectability among academics and think- tanks in the early 1970s, but spread to the human rights world only in the last three years. When the United Nations Development Programme decided in 1990 to try to produce some easily assessable criteria with which to calculate the record of countries when it came to torture or unfair trials, the idea of having a reliable index seemed attractive in a world increasingly interested in relating economic aid to a country's human rights performance.

One of the first plans was to base criteria on Humana's index. But this quickly foundered when governments which scored very badly began protesting that these stark assessments were in breach of customary UN vagueness over such matters. A much watered-down version, giving general regional trends, was all that appeared in the 1992 Human Development Report.

Attempts to pin down governments which blatantly transgress the very international laws and covenants they have cheerfully signed and ratified are, however, increasingly popular. Their influence is plain from the apprehension and excitement which greets the appearance, towards the end of each January, of the US State Department's annual reports. One expert believes that ordinary people, outside universities, still shy away unnecessarily from numbers. In the age of forecasts, he predicts, clear numerical indexes for human rights are bound to become more necessary.

Humana's guide is proof of how far they still have to go to become reliable. One of the main drawbacks when trying to measure human rights is that the very countries which allow monitoring to take place are those which have little to hide. True transgressors remain hostile to all forms of investigation. Bangladesh scores a fairly respectable 59 per cent in the World Human Rights Guide, and is praised for showing improvements. Yet in April this year, the tenth in a long series of massacres of tribal people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in south-west Bangladesh resulted in the deaths of about 1,200 people, many of them children burnt alive. The Chittagong Hill Tracts have been officially sealed off, and ruled by the military, for the last 15 years.