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Unit information: International Human Rights in 2020/21

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Unit name International Human Rights
Unit code POLIM3030
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Medie
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


This unit explores the philosophical, historical, normative, legal and political foundations of the contemporary international human rights regime and the main controversies surrounding human rights theory and practice. Key questions that will be addressed in this unit include: what are the foundations of human rights? Are human rights universal or culturally determined? How do we realize human rights in a world of states? What has the impact of conflict, globalisation and the war on terror been on human rights? The first part of the course examines the emergence and development of the human rights movement, explores the debate about the foundations of human rights, including critical approaches to the idea of human rights, and addresses the ongoing controversy over universality, culture and human rights. The second part of this unit focuses on the practice of human rights. First, from a legal perspective, it looks at the main features of the current human rights system at the international and regional levels. Second, it addresses the praxis of human rights from an international relations perspective. The third part of the course looks in-depth at a number of specific issues and how they affect human rights, including humanitarian intervention, transitional and international criminal justice, globalisation and the war on terror.


  • To examine the conceptual debates about the foundation and universality of human rights.
  • To explore the contemporary human rights system, the main international institutions, legal provisions, its achievements and limitations.
  • To provide a critical understanding of the role played by different international and domestic actors in the promotion/protection/violation of human rights.
  • To develop a critical assessment of particular human rights issues, including multiculturalism, humanitarian intervention, genocide and transitional justice.
  • To explore and evaluate the impact of states’ foreign policies, conflict, globalisation and the war on terror on human rights.

Intended learning outcomes

Upon completion of this unit students will:

  • Develop an understanding of the key debates and contemporary challenges surrounding the theory and practice of human rights.
  • Demonstrate substantive knowledge of key human rights issues and actors.
  • Show familiarity with the international and regional mechanisms for the monitoring and enforcement of the human rights regime.
  • Demonstrate an ability to critically evaluate the impact of states’ foreign policies, conflict, globalisation and the war on terror on human rights.
  • Have an ability to integrate theoretical and empirical materials in the essay and oral presentation.
  • Have an ability to develop critical discussion skills, particularly through seminar participation, group work and the presentation of seminar papers.
  • Have an ability to make articulate, concise, persuasive and well-paced presentations in small groups.
  • Have an ability to write articulately, concisely and persuasively.

Teaching details

The unit will be taught through blended learning methods, including a mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching activities

Assessment Details

Formative assessment: seminar presentations supported by a handout. The seminar presentation supported by a handout provides formative assessment of (1) the student's grasp of the substantive issues associated with this unit and (2) the student's ability to engage with that substantive material in an articulate, concise and persuasive way both verbally and in written form.

Summative assessment: an essay of 4,000 words. The assessed essay provides summative assessment of (1) the student's substantive grasp of issues covered by this unit; (2) the student's ability to engage with those substantive issues in an articulate, persuasive and critical manner in written form; and (3) the student's ability to engage with the relevant literature and achieve and appropriate degree of depth which is still concise.

Reading and References

  • Donnelly, J. (2002) Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2nd ed.
  • Forsythe, D. (2006), Human Rights in International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed.
  • Freeman, M. (2002), Human Rights. An Interdisciplinary Approach, Cambrige: Polity Press.
  • Goodhart, M. (ed.) (2009) Human Rights. Politics & Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ishay, M. R. (2007) The Human Rights Reader, London: Routledge, 2nd ed.
  • Smith, Rhona K. M. (2007) Textbook on International Human Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed.