Human rights abuses are commonly associated with despotic, totalitarian regimes, not with weak and failing states. But Professor Neil Englehart’s recent study of 140 nations suggests that weak states may actually put personal security rights at the greatest risk.

Englehart defined state "capacity" as "the willingness and capability of the state apparatus to carry out government policy" not by a particular government’s stability, longevity, or popularity. He used three measures of capacity: (1) expert opinion on law and order (impartial legal system and general respect for the law); (2) expert opinion on state corruption; and (3) the state’s tax (which fund state services) as a proportion of gross domestic product.

Human right violations were measured by: (1) Political Terror Scale scores based on the US State Department annual human rights reports; (2) CIRI data on extrajudicial killing; and (3) CIRI data on political imprisonment. Each state’s degree of democratic vs authoritarian orientation (Polity IV) was also rated.

State capacity strongly predicted personal rights/security. The weaker the state’s capacity, the greater was the risk of human/personal security violations, except for political imprisonment. Weak state capacity did not predict that nearly as well. Instead, Democracy was the strongest predictor of protection from political imprisonment.

Because states are ultimately responsible to protect their citizens from human right abuses, it is common to blame them when these violations occur and to muster international support to shame the government into compliance. If a state genuinely lacks the capacity to protect its citizens, however, shaming is unlikely to be effective. Instead, this research suggests that bolstering capacity may yield more effective outcomes.

Englehart concludes: "There is an extensive literature suggesting the importance of state capacity for economic development. This suggests that state capacity will have a positive impact on both level of economic development and human rights conditions."

Englehart, N. (2009). State Capacity, State Failure, and Human Rights Journal of Peace Research, 46 (2), 163-180 DOI: 10.1177/0022343308100713