Why Are the United States and Israel at the Top of Human Rights Hit Lists?

Hrw1 James Ron and Howard Ramos in Foreign Policy:

[W]hy would the watchdogs neglect authoritarians? We asked both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, and received similar replies. In some cases, staffers said, access to human rights victims in authoritarian countries was impossible, since the country's borders were sealed or the repression was too harsh (think North Korea or Uzbekistan). In other instances, neglected countries were simply too small, poor, or unnewsworthy to inspire much media interest. With few journalists urgently demanding information about Niger, it made little sense to invest substantial reporting and advocacy resources there.

The watchdogs can and do seek to stimulate demand for information on the forgotten crises, but this is an expensive and high risk endeavor, not to be done lightly or too frequently. It's easier to sell people what they already want than to try create new demand, and businesses that do too much of the latter will quickly run into trouble.

Intrigued by these preliminary findings, we subjected the 1986-2000 Amnesty data to a barrage of statistical tests. (Since Human Rights Watch's early archival procedures seemed spotty, we did not include their data in our models.)

Amnesty's coverage, we found, was driven by multiple factors, but contrary to the dark rumors swirling through the blogosphere, we discovered no master variable at work. Most importantly, we found that the level of actual violations mattered. Statistically speaking, Amnesty reported more heavily on countries with greater levels of abuse. Size also mattered, but not as expected. Although population didn't impact reporting much, bigger economies did receive more coverage, either because they carried more weight in global politics and economic affairs, or because their abundant social infrastructure produced more accounts of abuse. Finally, we found that countries already covered by the media also received more Amnesty attention. Although we did not perform the same statistical tests on the Human Rights Watch data, this pattern seems to hold there, too.

What does all this mean? First, human rights groups are partly true to their mission, since they report more on countries with more human rights problems. That's a relief. Wealth and its byproducts — global influence and information — are also crucial. Thus, abuses in countries with more telephones, computers, and educated people receive more watchdog attention. That makes sense since even human rights researchers are only human.