Document Type

Undergraduate Syllabus


Spring 2020



Course Number


Course Description

What are human rights? What do they promise and how often is that promise achieved? This class will examine the law, politics, policy, and advocacy practices of human rights, focusing on the dilemmas that ensue. Although much of our class will focus on human rights as law and through legal mechanisms and institutions, we will also analyze the political, policy, and philosophical implications of human rights. On the legal front, we will explore the role of international and domestic law in enacting and enforcing human rights claims, the institutions of international human rights law, and the relationships between different types of rights. In the realms of both law and policy, we will be examining the stories told about human rights what it does, what it can do, what’s wrong or right about it, how it helps some groups, to whom it applies and when. Throughout the course, we will pay special attention to three sets of questions:

• How can one most effectively mobilize a human rights agenda? What tools do you have at your disposal? Is military intervention a useful way to enforce human rights? Is litigation the best way to promote a particular human right? Criminal prosecution? Naming and shaming? Protest? Are human rights an end in themselves or one part of a larger strategy?

• Are human rights “part of the problem” or part of the solution? Do they mobilize or demobilize activism? Are human rights about universal guarantees, particularistic values, widespread dignity, neocolonial condescension, or all of the above? What do human rights promise and when do they deliver on those promises?

• Our world is facing unimaginable challenges: vast poverty and inequality, threats to democracy, climate change, massive population movements, conflict and insecurity. Can a human rights agenda help us face up to those challenges? How?

We will be reading both legal cases and materials and scholarly commentary on the meaning and practice of human rights. By the end of the semester, students should have developed knowledge of the key concepts, doctrines and debates involved in the study of international human rights law. Students will also develop familiarity with legal reasoning and analysis. Law is, centrally, about making arguments; in reading and analyzing a wide variety of international legal cases, issues, and doctrines, students will become skilled at identifying, critiquing, and developing legal arguments. The course will also help students to develop critical reading and writing faculties that extend beyond the legal field. Students will learn how to think like a lawyer, like a critic, and like an advocate - and sometimes how to think like all three at the same time. As a movement, a set of institutions, and a body of law, human rights promises a great deal. We will take those promises seriously as we ask how, whether, and where they are disappointed or fulfilled.