from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

World Opinion on Human Rights

August 12, 2009

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Human Rights

Polls and Public Opinion

This page is part of Public Opinion on Global Issues. Download this chapter (PDF) or read more about U.S. opinion on human rights.

This publication is now archived.

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

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. Download full chapter (PDF).

More on:


Human Rights

Polls and Public Opinion