Analysis of the Language Used by Democracies and Dictatorships on the Topic of Human Rights

Júlia Oliveira Souza


Human Rights is a topic constantly studied and discussed, and there is much which can be revealed about international politics through the lens of this subject. The global human rights regime established and encouraged by the United Nations has changed the world’s behavior towards the matter, and there is a specific language used within the institution that diplomats and UN policy experts to talk about human rights. This post discusses the way states refer to human rights-related matters during the United Nations General Assembly’s annual General Debate

I conducted a text analysis of the UN General Debate Corpus, which we recently updated to include all speeches from 1970 to 2021. To help us better understand these speeches, our team used Christian Bjørnskov and Martin Rode’s regime dataset to classify the states participating in each General Debate as either a democracy or a dictatorship. My research compares the way democracies and dictatorships speak about human rights. At first glance, I expected that democracies would speak about human rights more than dictatorships–and the data has supported this initial theory. However, the main interest of this study is how each regime addresses the international community regarding the topic, rather than the bare quantities. Seraphine Maerz’s findings that hegemonic authoritarianism tends to emulate the language of democracies offer an insight into why authoritarian regimes might speak similarly to democracies. The study suggests that simulating the rhetoric of pluralism serves as a way for authoritarian hegemonic regimes to gain legitimacy by hyper-focusing on false democratic processes to portray the idea of liberalism and democracy. In this vein, it is plausible to theorize that dictatorships will seek legitimization from the international community by emulating the language of the dominating government regime: democracies. Specifically, when it comes to human rights, dictator-led States make themselves present in the discussion, and the remainder of this post will explore how such participation takes place. 

The analysis

Using quanteda, a text analysis package developed for R, my analysis demonstrates that leaders from both democracies and dictatorships make multiple references to human rights issues in their speeches. By analyzing the different words associated with “human rights” in the corpus, I found that both regime types use similar words when referring to human rights. This suggests that the United Nations has successfully produced a universal language on human rights, which has influenced the way that leaders speak on these issues. However, speaking about the matter does not necessarily translate into the promotion, protection, or fulfillment of human rights. The textual analysis found that the greater part of the terms used by both democratic and authoritarian nations are filler words. Terms such as “must”, “can”, and “efforts” allow the speakers to address the human rights regime without communicating on possibly contradictory questions. 

The next figures list the 20 top words associated with human rights in the UNGD Corpus. Figure 1 includes the words most associated with human rights in the speeches of dictatorships. Figure 2 represents the same for the democratic statements. 

It is now clearer that the reason why the language used in both types of regimes is so similar: there is no stand being taken, it is a repetition of exhausted agreements and conventions.

Virtually every nation will accept that protecting such rights is important, and almost none will admit to disregarding them. Consequently, if one assumes that world leaders are not blatantly lying in an international forum, there is the hidden question of where lies the difference between those who respect the core human rights treaties and those who do not? What are the signs hidden in the speeches? Which patterns can be found? The answer is in the narrative being told. 

Perhaps the most significant finding is that, although the most commonly used words remain effectively the same between Democracies and Dictatorships, subtle differences in the less used terms indicated what a country prioritizes as the type of Human Rights it affords to its people. Meaning that while the UDHR addresses civil and economic rights, a Nation can choose to hyper-focus on one kind to avoid recognizing where it is lacking on the other. In a Word-association analysis utilizing quanteda, the most closely related words in relation to “human rights” remain the same for both types of regimes. Notwithstanding, by looking towards the middle of the list, one will find that themes such as “torture” and “abuse” are more related to human rights in the speeches of democracies than that of their authoritarian counterparts – indicating that the focus has been put elsewhere. Per the terms more closely associated with human rights in the speeches connected to dictatorships, it is possible to make the – somewhat bold – assumption that these regimes approach the matter as a political issue more than a basic right. As evidence, words such as “politicization”, “governance”, “rapporteur” and “instruments” are more closely related to the theme in speeches by the authoritarian states. By turning such a subject into a political matter, dictatorships can navigate the global human rights regime more easily without accountability for their violations. 

This is perfectly exemplified by an analysis of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) signatories. A rather surprising amount of dictatorships have signed this agreement, but even more shocking, perhaps, is that dictatorships that have signed or ratified the CAT demonstrate higher levels of torture practices than those that took no action (Hathaway, 2002). According to James Vreeland (2008), this occurs because of internal pressures, when dictatorial leaders need to appease domestic competition – which only exists to legitimize their rule – and the opposition pushes for a signing of the CAT. Based on these factors, it is possible to theorize that those nations are now obligated to address issues of torture and human rights, but will likely make empty statements during international conventions. My hypothesis is that these dictatorships will then match the pattern found during the conducted textual analysis: frequent use of filler words, the politicization of human rights issues, and more importantly, avoidance or deviation from the subject of the treaties in which the regime is in violation of.

Concluding Remarks

In this post, I have demonstrated that there is an established human rights language, widely used in the United Nations and that government officials from dictatorships have found a way to exploit it for their rhetorical purposes. The data obtained through quantitative textual analysis provides enough information to conclude that states under authoritarian regimes have found a way to mimic the language used by democracies on human rights issues, which I believe is a workaround to avoid discussing such issues in a less favorable light. In the same way, failing democracies can attempt to mask their own human rights violation from the international community. Overall, by incorporating the language of human rights into their speeches, dictatorships can more easily integrate into international organizations and appease domestic tensions, as their rhetoric is not directly clashing with the democratic majority, whilst making no major compromises. Further research is necessary, and I suggest that a qualitative analysis be paired with quantitative textual research in order to better compare these speeches’ tone and context. 

About the author:

Júlia Oliveira Souza is an International Relations & Spanish double major, with a minor in Data Science at Drew University.