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Unit information: Human Rights in Law, Politics and Society in 2020/21

Unit name Human Rights in Law, Politics and Society
Unit code LAWD30125
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Mr. Burton
Open unit status Not open




School/department University of Bristol Law School
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


This unit covers the following topics: the origins and history of the human rights ideal and its contested status in debates about law, politics and society; the internationalization and globalization of human rights; arguments about the universality and limits of human rights particularly with respect to a range of value systems; attempts to sanction human rights violations through legal and especially judicial processes, particularly by the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court; and some sharp contemporary debates, including, but not limited to, the profile of human rights in processes of democratization, and in response to terrorism.

Intended learning outcomes

The unit is intended to cultivate and encourage reflective and creative engagement with issues rather than simply knowledge acquisition and transfer, expectations which are fully conveyed to students in lectures and seminars. By the end of the unit a successful student will be able to:

  • Explain the nature of the human rights ideal and its contested status in debates in, and between, western and non-western value systems, and about globalization, international law and international relations;
  • Identify and discuss some core debates where human rights are particularly central, eg poverty, counterterrorism, multiculturalism;
  • State the various arguments and positions in key debates accurately, assess them critically and come to nuanced, reasoned conclusions about how the issues might best be understood and problems resolved;
  • Demonstrate the following benchmark skills:
    • Selection of sources from a wide range of suggested literature;
    • Reading in depth and in breadth;
    • Critical analysis of written texts;
    • Written argumentation.

Teaching details

Teaching will be delivered through a variety of asynchronous and synchronous activities

Assessment Details

1 x summative assessment: Timed Open Book Assessment with a specified word count (100%)

The assessment will assess all of the intended learning outcomes for this unit.

Reading and References

Principal texts:

  • J. Donnelly and D. Whelan, International Human Rights: Dilemmas in World Politics, (Westview Press, 5th ed., 2017);
  • J. Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Cornell University Press, 3rd ed., 2013).

Other texts to which frequent reference is made include:

  • K. Larres & R. Wittlinger (eds.), Global Politics (Routledge, 2020);
  • O. De Schutter, International Human Rights Law: Cases, Materials, Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed., 2019);
  • M. Freeman, Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Polity, 3rd ed., 2017);
  • M. Goodhart, Human Rights: Politics and Practice (Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 2016);
  • I. Bantekas & L. Odette, International Human Rights Law and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed. 2016);
  • M. Frezzo, The Sociology of Human Rights (Polity, 2015);
  • C. Tomuschat, Human Rights: Between Idealism and Realism (Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 2014).

Some particularly useful recent collections of essays covering a range of topics include:

  • S. Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane, 2018);
  • D. Moeckli et al (eds), International Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 2018);
  • R. Cruft et al (eds), Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2015);
  • S. Sheeran & Sir N. Rodley (eds), Routledge Handbook of International Human Rights Law (Routledge, 2013);
  • T. Risse et al (eds), The Persistent Power of Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The following dictionary and lexicon may be helpful, particularly for students whose first language is not English:

  • C. de la Vega, Dictionary of International Human Rights Law (Edward Elgar, 2013);
  • S. Marks & A. Clapham, International Human Rights Lexicon (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Collections of documents include:

  • U. Khaliq, International Human Rights Documents (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  • R. Smith, Core Documents on European and International Human Rights 2017-18 (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edn., 2017).
  • A. Bisset, Blackstone’s International Human Rights Documents, 11th edn. (Oxford University Press, 2018).