New Internationalist

Human rights - the facts

Issue 408

Civil and political rights

At the last count, in 2006: 1

Torture and terror

  • There were cases of torture and ill-treatment by security forces, police and other state authorities in 102 countries
  • 400 detainees from more than 30 nationalities were held at Guantánamo Bay; 200 had staged hunger strikes since the camp opened; 40 had attempted suicide; 3 died in June 2006 after apparent suicides
  • An unknown number of detainees were being held in secret detention centres or ‘black sites’ around the world

The death penalty

  • 20,000 people were on death row worldwide
  • 3,861 people were sentenced to death in 55 countries; 1,591 prisoners were executed in 25 countries – down from 2,184 in 2005 (figures include only judicial executions)
  • 91% of all known executions took place in 6 countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and the US
  • 69 countries still use the death penalty

Violence against women

  • At least 1 in 3 of the world’s women had been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused
  • 70% of the casualties in conflicts were non-combatants, most of them women and children


  • 85% of killings worldwide involved the use of small arms and light weapons
  • 60% of the world’s firearms were in the hands of private individuals

Economic and social rights ^2^

  • In 2000 the member states of the UN committed themselves to the Millennium Development Goals. These set out what are, in effect, the most basic economic and social rights. 1990 was taken as the starting point; minimum ‘targets’ were to be achieved by 2015. Just 7 years now remain to achieve them.
  • At present rates of progress, it will be 30 years before South Asia gets there – at least 100 years before sub-Saharan Africa does so. Apart from Europe and North America, no region will reach the base level before 2020.

Extreme poverty

Target: halve the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.

Comment: the target may almost be hit by ‘developing regions’ as a whole – but it will be missed spectacularly by sub-Saharan Africa.

Child mortality

Target: Reduce the rate by two thirds.

Comment: Painfully slow progress. To meet the target the rate should fall by roughly 50 points in the 10 years between 2005 and 2015. It fell by just 23 points in the 15 years between 1990 and 2005.


Target: halve the number of people who suffer from hunger.

Comment: progress is far too slow. Every 5 seconds a child still dies from hunger-related causes. In Bangladesh, India and Nepal nearly half of all children under 5 suffer from malnutrition.


Target: Halt or reverse spread.

  • By the end of 2006 the number of people living with HIV was up to 39.5 million from 31.9 million in 2001. The rate of increase is slowing, but in 2006 just 28% of people in need of treatment were receiving it in developing regions.


Target: Halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

Comment: The target will be missed by 600 million people. An estimated 1.6 billion people will need access to ‘improved sanitation’ – not the same as safe drinking water - by 2015. Access to safe drinking water is likely to be even more restricted.

Maternal Mortality

Target: Reduce by three quarters.

There are no reliable figures. An estimated 500,000 women die each year from treatable or preventable complications of pregnancy or childbirth. In sub-Saharan Africa a woman’s risk of dying from such complications over the course of her lifetime is 1 in 16, compared with 1 in 3,800 in the rich world.


Target: Ensure that by 2015 children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary education.

Comment: In sub-Saharan Africa 30% of primary school age children are still out of school. Worldwide, 77 million children do not go to school; 781 million adults cannot read or write, of whom two-thirds are women.


Goal: Reverse loss of environmental resources.

Comment: Forests are still being lost rather than renewed.

Comment: Emissions continue a relentless rise. Counter measures have been ineffective. Projections suggest that unless the rise is not just halted but reversed by 2015, then changes to the climate will be both uncontrollable and catastrophic.

  1. Amnesty International Annual Report 2007.
  2. The statistical tables are taken from the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, available online at Other data and comment are taken from Social Watch Report, also available online at

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This article was originally published in issue 408

New Internationalist Magazine issue 408
Issue 408

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