Human-rights ‘metrics’ that clash with reality

When Israel and India are on a par with Iran and Saudi Arabia, something is badly wrong.

Human Rights March in Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Moshe Rafaeli)
Human Rights March in Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Moshe Rafaeli)
Writing in Friday’s Jerusalem Post, Israel Kasnett provided figures that concretize the world’s double standard regarding Israel: A London protest against Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza, for instance, drew “tens of thousands” of people (The Guardian’s figure), compared to a mere 150 for one against the ongoing slaughter in Syria, which has so far claimed at least five times as many victims.
Nor need you be “right-wing” to notice this discrepancy: Two Haaretz columnists, both dyed-in-the-wool left-wingers, offered similar observations last week. Bradley Burston focused on the UN Human Rights Council, which rushed to appoint a committee to investigate the Gaza war but hasn’t even considered doing the same for Syria; Carlos Strenger addressed the issue more broadly in a column titled “Israel, Syria, and the double standards of the Free World.”
But while double standards certainly exist, the past few months’ spate of rankings purporting to measure various human rights has convinced me there’s a broader problem: Many organizations seem to be so enthralled by their own metrics that reality is relegated to a distant second place. When the metrics don’t jibe with real-world experience, these organizations would rather ignore the facts than consider that their metrics might be flawed.
Take, for instance, the annual religious freedom index published in December by CIRI, the Cingranelli-Richards Human Rights Dataset (named for the two American professors who devised it). Unsurprisingly, countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and Afghanistan all received the lowest ranking, zero on a scale of 0-2. Shockingly, however, so did countries like Israel, India and Mexico.
Certainly, Israel has some religious restrictions (like the Orthodox monopoly on marriage). But that’s a far cry from, say, Iran, which persecutes members of the Baha’i faith so viciously that the religion, founded in Iran, maintains its world headquarters in Israel. According to CIRI, however, there’s no difference between the country that drove the Baha’is out and the country that took them in: Both rate a “zero” on the religious freedom scale. Similarly, CIRI sees no difference between India – where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and countless others all live and worship freely – and Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslim worship is legally banned.
Any normal person would conclude there’s something badly wrong with a religious-freedom metric that equates Israel and India with Saudi Arabia and Iran. But not the academics who created CIRI: They refuse to let the facts disturb their formulas.
Then there’s the economic freedom index published last month by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, in which Jordan and Botswana (32 and 33) creamed Norway (40) and Israel (48). That wouldn’t be surprising if the index’s publishers were anti-capitalists. But since both organizations proudly assert that economic freedom produces prosperity, it’s bizarre to find flourishing economies like Norway (per-capita GDP $96,600, unemployment 3.4%) and Israel (per-capita GDP $32,300, unemployment 5.6%) ranking well behind comparative basket-cases like Jordan (per-capita GDP $4,500, unemployment 12.9%). You might expect such results to cause a rethink of either the metrics or the thesis. But if so, you’d be disappointed.
Finally, there’s the press freedom rankings published last month by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), where Israel (excluding the territories), at 92, ranked well below countries like Bulgaria and Chile (both at 80) and Hungary (40).Yet here’s how RSF itself described the situation in those countries: “Targeted attacks and death threats against journalists marked the past year in Bulgaria, where concerns about print media pluralism grew”; Hungary “fell 17 rungs to 40th place after adopting a law giving the ruling party direct control over the media”; and in Chile, “violence against journalists included beatings, cyber-attacks and attacks on editorial staffs. Many of these assaults, often accompanied by heavy-handed arrests and destruction of equipment, were carried out by abusive armed police who were rarely called to account.”
So why is Israel, despite enjoying “real media pluralism,” ranked so much lower than these others? Aside from the existence of military censorship (marginal but nevertheless real), one major factor was a bill to “drastically increase the amount of damages that can be awarded in defamation cases,” which passed the first of three required readings. In other words, according to RSF, for parliament to consider – but not yet enact – a bill increasing damages in libel suits is a full 52 places worse than actually enacting a law that gives “the ruling party direct control over the media.” To any normal person – and even, I suspect, most journalists – this sounds bizarre. But not, apparently, to RSF.
Another major factor was Anat Kamm, whom RSF deems an “imprisoned netizen” – just like those bloggers jailed in Egypt or China for daring to express an opinion. In reality, of course, a criminal court jailed Kamm for “systematically” betraying her oath as a soldier by stealing 2,085 documents over the course of her army service, including “plans for military operations, information on troop deployments, summaries of various internal discussions, military targets and intelligence assessments,” and giving them to a journalist. This is the same crime for which American Pfc. Bradley Manning, suspected of giving US diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, now faces life in prison. But Manning was somehow omitted from RSF’s list of “imprisoned netizens.”
Thus in RSF’s world, press freedom is more endangered by jailing a soldier who commits systematic document theft than by either “targeted attacks and death threats against journalists” or “beatings … attacks on editorial staffs … heavy-handed arrests and destruction of equipment,” often “by abusive armed police who were rarely called to account.” Once again, I doubt most ordinary people, or even most journalists, would agree.
The truth is that real life – for instance, trying to avoid civilian casualties when fighting terrorists who launch rockets from urban population centers – is rarely as simple as many human-rights organizations seem to think it is. But when you ignore such real-world complexities and instead judge every situation by simplistic, black-and-white standards, you wind up with absurdities like the ones cited above.
And until that changes, reports by “human-rights organizations” will to continue to present a deeply distorted view of the world.   
The writer is a journalist and commentator.