SPIA Associate Professor K. Chad Clay wants to reduce human suffering, and he bets you do, too.
In his TEDxUGA 2023 talk, Clay, the director of SPIA’s Center for the Study of Global Issues (GLOBIS), argues that most Americans care about human rights, even though the United States, which leads the world according to most economic, military, and cultural benchmarks, performs relatively poorly on most human rights measures.
Clay defined human rights as those recognized by United Nations agreements, including civil and political rights (which include freedom from torture, the right to political participation, the right to free expression), economic, social, and cultural rights, (for example, the rights to education, healthcare, or an adequate wage), and freedom from discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or any other status. In 2021, the U.S. ranked 114 out of 195 countries on citizen safety from state violence, well behind all other high-income democracies, and dead last among high-income democracies on the right to health care, based on data from 2020, the most recent available.
The United States also largely avoids enforcing human rights on the international level, having ratified just five of the 18 major human rights treaties. It is one of eight countries that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Eliminations of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the only one that declined to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“These failures have two meanings,” Clay shared in the talk. “First, our rights here in the U.S. are less guaranteed than others are all over the world. But second, and beyond that, by sitting on the sidelines of the international human rights movement, the United States has denied the world the benefit of its economic power and cultural influence in seeking better human rights outcomes for everyone everywhere.”
One obstacle to general support for human rights, Clay maintains, is a lack of useful data on the subject.
“In the U.S., and worldwide, we don’t tend to think of human rights as much as things like economic growth and development or military power,” said Clay. “One of the main reasons for that is that we simply don’t have data and metrics on human rights to the extent we do on all these other aspects of governmental performance and day-to-day life.”
In addition to scarce data, Clay points out, the historical mythos of American exceptionalism clouds our willingness to accept U.S. weakness in any category.
“The United States is the richest country in the world, with the biggest economy,” he said. “It has, arguably, the most powerful military in the world. The metrics we have say that the U.S. is this powerful, strong state doing a great job. The story that people tend to tell themselves is that, sure, the U.S. has problems, but it is better to live here than anywhere else.”
This sense of superiority, at least on human rights, is a delusion, Clay argues.
“The U.S. almost always comes in near the bottom of high-income democracies on the things we might call physical integrity rights, to be free from things like torture, killing, disappearance, arbitrary arrests, and freedom from the death penalty,” he said. “I think it is time for us to reframe our thinking about that and decide how we could actually live up to our ideals. U.S. policy and the world would be better for it.”
As a professor, Clay takes a bottom-up approach to solving this problem of perspective. By educating the populace on the topic of human rights, he hopes to build enough passion for the subject that legislators are forced to take note.
“My belief, because it happened in my life, is that if you learn about this stuff, you start to care about it,” said Clay. “The more people who care about it, the more advantage it creates for the politician that takes it seriously, because we will demand it. I think there’s leverage to be had from political leaders that want to show the degree of distance between U.S. self-image and U.S. behavior, and building a political coalition around doing better.”
On an individual level, he recommends using this knowledge to direct one’s personal investments and philanthropic decisions towards supporting initiatives and nations that protect human rights, doing what we can to disseminate the truth on the topic, and holding elected representatives accountable for their human rights records.
The critical intervention, however, is the collection and analysis of objective, reliable international human rights data. Most existing data depends on self-reporting, considered inferior to that provided by independent third parties.
“In general, we haven’t had human rights data because we can’t trust what states say about it, and they don’t want other people to report on it either,” he said. “Largely, the job of measuring human rights has fallen to academics, nonprofits, and non-governmental organizations around the world.”
In November 2015, Clay and two associates, Anne-Marie Brook and Susan Randolph, responded to this gap by co-founding the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI, pronounced ‘her-mee’). The team, which now consists of 17 core members and dozens of international ambassadors, collaborates with academics and human rights advocates all over the world to produce, analyze, and present data in an accessible way, even those numbers that some nations are desperate to suppress.
“States do not often report how many people their government tortured or imprisoned arbitrarily last year, for obvious reasons,” Clay shared. “So that is hidden information that we have to access in different ways. HRMI has mainly done that by going directly to human rights practitioners and advocates on the ground, to people whose job it is to daily monitor whether states are engaged in these kinds of human rights violations.”
HRMI provides such stakeholders with an invaluable platform; they enter raw country-specific human rights data into this system, which uses sophisticated statistical techniques to translate them into useful numbers for cross-country comparisons and trends across time. The organization publishes its data and research annually on www.rightstracker.org. HRMI’s civil and political rights data release for 2023 rolled out in this June, with an accompanying webinar, followed by economic and social rights data releases.
Though the effort has attracted grants, private donors, and the support of some government agencies, such as the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ongoing financial support is tenuous. Co-founder Anne-Marie Brook has spun off Rights Intelligence, a private-sector application of human rights data with the goal of generating self-sustaining revenue.
“The biggest threat to HRMI, and to all measurement work like this, is the fact that we are not government-funded,” Clay shared, in a bid to attract donations. “We are largely at the mercy of the grant cycle and of private donors, because, again, government is less excited to do that.”
HRMI is just one initiative of the UGA Center for the Study of Global Issues (GLOBIS), which Clay took over in fall 2019. Since that time, though hamstrung by COVID-related travel restrictions, he has introduced multiple programs to position the center as a hub for cutting-edge human rights research. The Human Rights Research Lab offers 20 undergraduates per year the chance to support projects like HRMI. The Sub-National Analysis of Repression Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, also provides students the opportunity to get field experience with human rights work. Clay is currently working to create a video series that gives viewers a fun introduction to human rights and how it applies to their daily lives.
Finally, as part of the SouthEastern Rights Network, GLOBIS has helped create and host conferences with human rights scholars from across the region.
“That [network] has turned into a great space for scholars, but also undergrads and graduate students interested in human rights work, to come and present research in a really friendly environment,” said Clay. “My hope is in the long run, that when people think of human rights centers in the United States, GLOBIS pops into their head.”
Clay, a frequent nominee, was a big fan of the TEDxUGA process and the New Media Institute team that supports it, particularly student curators Midori Jenkins, Leah Banko, Olivia Colburn, Anna Van Eekeren, and Saba Alemayehu, Head Curator Esther Kim, and TEDxUGA licensee Megan Ward. The student curators read Clay’s early drafts and pointed out issues with concepts that were too complex for the average viewer and celebrated angles that would hook them in.
“Effectively, if you are chosen to give a TED Talk, you work with student curators to narrow down your topic and work on your scripts,” said Clay. “It is this iterative, collaborative process where you get to work with a really great team of undergrads to refine your work and turn it into something appropriate for a big audience. It makes the talk better than it would be otherwise, by miles and miles.”
He advises future presenters to trust their team as well as the structured, distinct TEDxUGA workflow.
“The process is tough,” said Clay, “and it will almost inevitably pull any potential presenter out of their comfort zone, because it is going to ask them to talk about things in a way that is probably different than they usually do. If you want this to have the widest reach possible, if you want people to truly understand the idea you are trying to share, trusting the people you are working with is the right way to do it.”