The Duck of Minerva

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Visualizing the Human Rights Issue Agenda

June 17, 2011

Part of the research project that is keeping me too busy to blog involves capturing, coding and visualizing the issue agenda for various transnational networks. Here is a visualization of the core human rights network on the World Wide Web, circa 2008.* (Nodes represent organizational websites and ties represent hyperlinks between them. Node size corresponds to in-degree centrality within the network.)You can click for a larger view.

It looks to me as if there are really two networks here: a human rights network and a development network, all tied together conceptually under the rubric of human rights. Whether this means that the human rights movement has been colonized by the development community or vice-versa is hard to say from this.

Now here is another visualization: of the human rights issue agenda, circa 2008, as represented on the same websites.** Here, nodes represent issues; ties between nodes represent co-occurrences of the same thematic issue on the same organization’s website.

One might think, given the predominance of development organizations in the human rights network, that economic and social rights would be front and center on the overall network’s issue agenda. But no:

1) Economic and social rights (e.g. “Water” or “Health Care”) are somewhat marginalized relative to civil and political rights issues like “Repression” or “Elections” (11.5% and 26% respectively). Economic and Civil-Political rights tend to cluster with one another, suggesting a division of labor among human rights organizations.

2) A number of new rights have been articulated that effectively cut across these archetypal categories and seem to serve as bridges between the older EcoSoc/CivPol typology. 15% of the total consists of cross-cutting isuses like “Discrimination,” “Access to Information” or “Impunity.”

3) Fourth generation group rights (“Women,” “Children,” “Indigenous,” etc) are also prominently represented on the agenda (14.5%).

4) However what’s most interesting to me is the proliferation of “rights” that fit none of these categories (the white nodes). 31% of the issues on the agenda fall into the “Other” category, which is composed of roughly four types of issues: those relating to humanitarian law (“Civilians,” “Crimes Against Humanity,” “Humanitarian Intervention”) or to war more broadly (landmines, occupation, militarization); those relating to technology (“Internet,” “Bioethics”) and those referring not to human rights problems but rather to the processes activists use (“Awareness-Raising,” “Research,” “Human Rights Education”) plus a miscellaneous category that includes things like “Drugs” and the “Environment.” The biggest proportion of the “other” category, however, has to do with war and war crimes, confirming a significant blending of human rights and humanitarian law.

Other thoughts, reactions or critiques welcome. Thanks to Alex Montgomery for helping with the visualizations, and Jim Ron for helping with the code scheme.

*We identified 41 prominent human rights organizations, as operationalized using a co-link analysis tool called IssueCrawler, with the Amnesty directory, the Choike Human Rights Directory and the UDHR60 NGO links page as starting points.
**We captured mission statements and “what we do” lists from each organization and coded them at QDAP.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.