Human rights and the transformation of world politics

Module outline and aims

This module provides you with an advanced overview of the theory, history and practice of human rights, with a focus on how the development of human rights has changed the nature of world politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. Specifically, it looks at the key intellectual advances and political events that have shaped the idea of universal human rights, while focusing on the way in which the meaning of human rights is contested and how the idea of human rights has been shaped by existing power structures. Through a detailed study of the theory, history and practice of human rights you will explore key controversies in the field and develop critical thinking and writing skills, as well as a detailed knowledge of the place of human rights in contemporary world politics.

Content outline 

The module is organised into three themes: (i) histories of human rights, (ii) theories of human rights, and (iii) practices of human rights. Each theme is developed over three lectures and classes to enable you to develop a critical understanding of the material. Before engaging with the themes there will be an introductory lecture and class to introduce you to the module. In looking at the history of human rights the course will focus on competing claims for when and how human rights were/are created - contrasting views that see them as a contemporary development with those that seek to trace a longer lineage, and considering differing accounts of how human rights are made, whether through law by the actions of political authorities or through contestation expressed by social movements and revolutionary politics.

The course then turns to theories of human rights to consider both what human rights are and how their authority is justified - looking at universal accounts of rights that presume the necessary transcendence of the national state and those that see rights as necessarily bound to forms of civil community. This
conventional dichotomy is problematized by looking at the interrelationship of morality and law with power and violence.

The final part of the course looks at the diverse practices of human rights in world politics, looking to the place of human rights in national contexts, within transnational organisations and as part of global social movements. In addition to offering a general look at human rights practices this portion of the course will look at specific rights regimes and specific rights in detail, as examples: the political movement for a human right to housing in the US, the European human rights regime's response to torture, and the international controversy over the right to development.