The Politics of Human Rights

Spring 2024
TuTh 8-930am
Course Description

Human rights constitute a central and inescapable ideal in the contemporary world. Governments around the globe routinely commit themselves to upholding human rights, and many states have signed landmark international human rights agreements. The promotion of human rights is, moreover, a fundamental principle of the United Nations and thus of the “international community,” such as it exists. However, and increasingly so, human rights are contested and under attack, as democracies globally are in retreat and autocracies denounce human rights as “Western” constructions. What future do human rights in global politics have? Are human rights in retreat or a bulwark against oppression? What power do human rights have and how does that power come about? This course is an introduction to the central concepts, laws, institutions, and debates in the field of human rights and is designed to answer those, and other, key questions. In the first half of the course, we will examine foundational questions in the field, such as: What are human rights? What are the philosophical, religious, and historical origins of human rights? What are the main international human rights agreements in international law? How do human rights treaties work, and is international human rights law effective? What are the main international institutions that handle human rights? How are human rights enforced outside of the U.N. system? What are regional human rights systems? Are human rights universal? And what role do non-governmental organizations play in this field? In the second half of the course, we will focus on two central and complex human rights issues. First, we will examine the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities. We will examine the variety of policy tools available to domestic and international actors to mitigate or stop mass violations of human rights. As part of our study, we will explore several cases, including Iraq, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Libya, Syria, and China. Second, we will examine various approaches to accounting for past human rights abuses, including international criminal courts, foreign courts, domestic courts, truth commissions, and “traditional” forms of justice. Again, we will focus on particular cases, such as the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, South Africa, The Gambia, and Colombia—among others. A central proposition throughout the course is that human rights cannot be separated from politics. Indeed, we cannot understand either why human rights abuses happen or how and why human rights have the power to improve human welfare without examining the political contexts in which efforts to mitigate abuses take place. Human rights are inseparable from the political, even if they are designed to be outside of politics. We will wrestle with that central paradox.