Grading the Presidential Administrations on Their
Policies and Preferences
with Regard to Human Rights

In an effort to develop a record of the importance that US presidents place on issues of human rights, the Center on Democratic Performance (CDP) at Binghamton University is conducting a project to examine the role of human rights in US foreign policy. The Center has constructed a report card that grades the emphasis that presidents place on issues that directly relate to the promotion of human rights at home and abroad. The report card is developed very much like the grading systems used by faculty in universities around the country. Specific criteria for evaluation are given, each is weighted by its importance to the overall mission of promoting and ensuring human rights, and each is graded based on performance indicators. The weighted aggregate of the individual indicators reflects an overall grade for the administration's preferences and policies regarding human rights. We use seven indicators that reflect a common view of the issues that address questions of human rights. Our seven indicators are:

  1. The number of times “human rights” is mentioned in the State of the Union Address - this is arguably the most important speech the President gives as it sets the tone and priorities for administration policies;
    Source: The American Presidency Project
  2. The score on an index of violations of personal integrity based on indicators used by the US Department of State and Amnesty International to evaluate the human rights records of other countries - indicators include number of political prisoners, political detainees, and detainees held without trial;
    Source: Amnesty International Yearly Reports
  3. An index of child welfare provisions which includes the percentage of persons under 18 living in poverty and the number of juvenile executions;
    Source: U.S. Census Bureau and Death Penalty Information Center
  4. The percentage of asylum cases approved out of the total number of cases adjudicated;
    Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  5. The number of official visits by Heads of State from countries considered "not free" by Freedom House;
    Source: Freedom House and U.S. Department of State
  6. The number of signed human rights agreements during each year;
    Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
  7. Percent of the discretionary budget allocated to international agencies committed to human right's issues.
    Source: GPO Access

The weights are assigned to each category based upon its relative influence on the overall perception of the president's policy orientation towards human rights issues. In order of importance, the assigned weights are:

Rather than devising a subjective standard to judge current administrations on their human rights policies and preferences with regard to human rights -- such as arbitrarily deciding five mentions of "human rights" in a State of the Union address earns the president an A, we judge current administrations based upon what contemporary and the most recent presidents have done.  Therefore, we recorded the data not only for the current administration, but also for some past administrations.  More specifically, we collected all the data from President Jimmy Carter's administration and one year from President Ronald Reagan's administration (1983) and President George H. W. Bush's administration (1991).  We do this because it would not be fair to compare the current  (and subsequent) administration(s) solely to what many would consider the administration most clearly focused on human rights (Carter's). We then record the data up through the year we are analyzing for the current administration.  In other words, for our most recent report (2005) data from 2001-2004 is included.*  We then use all the data to calculate the mean values on each indicator, along with the standard deviation on each. This in effect allows the current administration – and each subsequent year/administration -- to be judged against the mean generated by a mix of contemporary and recent presidential policies representing both of the major political parties. Finally, in a rough sense, we use the standard deviation from the mean to determine the grade ranges on each category, using the mean on each indicator as a B grade.  For example, for the 2005 report the mean value for the percentage of asylum cases approved out of the total number of cases adjudicated is a little more than 40% with a standard deviation of 10%.  In 2004, 32% of asylum cases were approved, which is a little less than one standard deviation below the mean.  Therefore, President George W. Bush receives a C/75 in this category. 

* It is important to note that the report is retrospective, looking back one year, so that we can develop the grade based on the most complete set of data that are available. And since our objective is to develop an evaluation of policy orientation and administrative preferences, it is more important to have complete data than a contemporary grade. We contend, however, that preferences and policies change rather slowly and in the norm capture what we can expect as future trends. If there is an abrupt change within an administration it will be picked up in the following year.