Progress in human rights is one of the hallmark achievements of the last century. In 1914, more than half the world lived under colonial rule, no country permitted all of its citizens to vote, and governments could inflict egregious abuses against their own people with relative impunity, protected by the norm of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries. Most countries around the world had laws that overtly discriminated on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual preference. Today, 70 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there has been a profound shift in thinking among people in all parts of the world. Governments are expected to treat their people humanely, upholding a certain set of ethical standards – even if they do not often comply. This gap, between expectations for the ethical treatment of human beings and the reality of what governments actually do, makes the struggle for human rights an ongoing one.
The course seeks to understand how and why human rights as an idea and as a set of standards have come into being and how they have affected the conduct of world politics. It examines the decades-long construction of an international human rights regime and the emergence of a global culture of rights. While it covers the use of legal cases and instruments to uphold and enforce human rights standards, the course’s primary emphasis is on understanding the political forces both propelling and opposing this rights regime. The goal of the course is to help us to think about why the world today recognizes the existence of certain rights as fundamental, when, just a few centuries ago—indeed, just a few decades ago—these rights were far from self-evident. We will consider the following questions: What explains the shifts in understanding of acceptable human behavior? Why and how are human rights violated, what can (and cannot) be done about such violations through international actions? Why do human rights remain such a small part of international politics, and what might be done about that? Are human rights universal or are they culturally specific? What should be the relationship between rights and national sovereignty? What is the role of non-governmental organizations and social movements in changing conceptions of rights and human protections? When is humanitarian intervention justified, and when is it necessary? What are the human rights responsibilities of multinational corporations? And what role should human rights play in American foreign policy?
Part I of the course examines on the history, evolution, and theory of human rights. Part II considers the legal and political institutions in the human rights regime. Throughout, the focus is on human rights as an ethical and political framework for public policy, rather than a system of international law, though law is certainly a central component of this framework.
Higer, Amy J., "International Human Rights" (2018). Diplomacy Syllabi. 126.