The History and Practice of Human Rights

History C187

Fall 2014
2040 VLSB
Day & Time: 
TuTh 1230-2P

What are human rights? Where did they originate and when? Who retains them, and when are we obliged to defend them? Though what kinds of institutions, practices, and frameworks have they been advocated and affirmed. And which are the human rights that we take to be self-evident? The rights to speak and worship freely? To legal process? To shelter and nourishment? Do our human rights include high-speed Internet access, as one Scandinavian country has recently proposed? Can human rights ever be global in scope? Or is the idea of universal human rights a delusion or, worse, a manifestation of cultural chauvinism?

History will not answer these questions for us, but historical understanding can help us answer them for ourselves. “The History and Practice of Human Rights,” examines the historical development of human rights to the present day, focusing on, but not confined to, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the idiom of human rights is frequently legalistic, we will ask how the idea of human rights might depend upon humanistic modes of comprehension and communication such as film, literature, music, and the arts: media that can stretch the horizons of elastic human empathy.

 More than a history of origins, however, this course will contemplate the relationships between human rights and other crucial themes in the history of the modern era, including revolution, imperialism, racism and genocide. Why, we must ask, did an era of recurrent and catastrophic political violence produce a language of universal human rights? Looking forward, can the proponents of human rights offer a redemptive alternative to twentieth century’s catastrophes, or are human rights themselves another false utopia?

As a history of international and global themes and an examination of specific practices and organizations, this course will ask students to make comparisons across space and time and to reflect upon the evolution of human rights in international thought and action.

Course Books

The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics by Sikkink, Kathryn Norton. ISBN: 978-0393079937 Required
Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America by Simon, Jonathan The New Press. ISBN: 978-1595587695 Required
A Problem from Hell by Power, Samantha Basic Books. ISBN: 978-0465061518 Required
The International Human Rights Movement: A History by Neier, Aryeh Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0691159607 Required
The Endtimes of Human Rights by Hopgood, Stephen Cornell University Press. ISBN: 978-0801452376 Required