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Polls Find Strong International Consensus on Human Rights

December 7, 2011

Digest of International Opinion on Human Rights
Digest of US Opinion on Human Rights
Public Opinion on Global Issues homepage
Stewart Patrick analysis

With the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, newly updated digests of American and international public opinion reveal a remarkable degree of consensus on principles of human rights, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

These digests have been developed by the Council on Foreign Relations' International Institutions and Global Governance program and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They provide comprehensive analyses of international and US polls on the world's most pressing challenges -- and the institutions designed to address them. The digest of international polling on human rights can be found here and the digest of US polling here. Analysis of these findings by Stewart Patrick can be found on his blog.

Majorities in all nations polled, including those with authoritarian governments, endorse the principles that:

• people should be free to express their opinions, including criticism of the government;
• people should have the right to demonstrate peacefully;
• the media should be free of government control;
• people should be treated equally irrespective of religion, gender, race or ethnicity;
• governments should be responsible for ensuring that their citizens can meet their basic needs for food, healthcare and education (this includes large majorities of Americans);
• the will of the people should be the basis for the authority of government and government leaders should be selected through free elections with universal suffrage.

At the same time, asked to consider difficult conditions such as the potential for political instability, publics in a few nations say that their government should have the right to limit the expression of certain views. However, in most nations this is not the case.

Large majorities in all nations polled (on average 7 in 10) also support the idea that the UN should make efforts to promote the human rights established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In nearly all countries, majorities favor the UN increasing these efforts, and a similar number favor the idea of giving the UN power to go into countries to investigate human rights abuses.

The most comprehensive source of data is a major study of attitudes on the UDHR that was conducted in 25 nations around the world by in 2008.

A new study conducted this year by Pew in six majority-Muslim countries, in the wake of the Arab Spring, also shows majorities saying it is important that people can "say what they think and can criticize the government," that "people of all faiths can practice their religion freely," and "women hav[ing] the same rights as men."

A 2010 Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) found that 72 percent of Americans endorsed "giving the UN the authority to go into countries in order to investigate violations of human rights," while 26 percent of respondents were opposed.

Summaries of findings:

The Role of the United Nations in Human Rights
Majorities or pluralities in all nations polled express support for the United Nations (UN) playing an active role in promoting human rights and reject the argument that this would be improper interference in the internal affairs of a country. Publics in most countries favor the UN playing a larger role than it presently does to promote human rights and favor giving it greater power to go into countries to investigate human rights abuses. Large majorities in nearly every country say that the UN should try to further women's rights even when presented the argument that this would conflict with national sovereignty. When asked which should make the decision on matters related to human rights, more respondents prefer either the UN or regional organizations rather than national governments, though an average of four in ten respondents prefer national governments.

Freedom of Expression
The principle that individuals have a right to freedom of expression--including criticism of government and religious leaders--appears to be nearly universally supported by people throughout the world. However, when asked whether government should have the right to limit expression of certain political and religious views, the consensus is not as strong. While majorities in most countries say the government should not have such a right, in several countries a majority (and in another few a large minority) says that it should have such a right. At the same time there is widespread consensus that individuals should have the right to demonstrate peacefully against the government.

Media Freedom
Internationally there is robust support for the principle that the media should be free of government control and that citizens should even have access to material from hostile countries. With just a few exceptions, majorities say that the government should not have the right to limit access to the internet. But while most publics say the government should not have the right to prohibit publishing material it thinks will be politically destabilizing, in a significant minority of countries a majority of the respondents say that governments should have such a right.

Religious Freedom
Publics around the world believe it is important for people of different religions to be treated equally. Majorities in most, but not all, nations affirm that followers of any religion should be allowed to assemble and practice in their country. At the same time, discomfort with proselytizing--trying actively to convert others to one's own religion--is quite widespread. Majorities in more than half of the countries polled do not favor extending religious freedom to a right to proselytize.

Women's Rights
Large majorities in all nations support the principle that women should have "full equality of rights" and most say it is very important. Large majorities believe their government has the responsibility to seek to prevent discrimination against women. Large majorities in nearly every country polled favor the United Nations playing an active role in this agenda.

Racial and Ethnic Equality
Large majorities in all countries say people of different races and ethnicities should be treated equally. In nearly every country large majorities say that employers should not be allowed to discriminate based on race or ethnicity and that it is the government's responsibility to stop this from happening. In general, large majorities agree that governments should take action to prevent racial discrimination.

Norms on Torture and Detention
Large majorities support having international rules against torture. However, significant minorities favor making an exception in the case of terrorists who have information that could save innocent lives. Limited polling has found that views are more mixed on prohibiting threatening torture or treating detainees in a humiliating or degrading manner. Commanders are generally seen as responsible if their subordinates carry out torture. All countries polled disapprove of allowing the United States to use their airspace to conduct extraordinary renditions.

Social and Economic Rights
Large majorities in every country say their government should be responsible to take care of the poor and for ensuring that citizens can meet their basic needs for food, healthcare, and education. However, there are wide variations in how people perceive their governments to be fulfilling these responsibilities.

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