Human Rights Core Courses


HR 101 Introduction to Human Rights

An intensive introduction to contemporary discussions of human rights in a broad context. The course mixes a basic historical and theoretical investigation of these contested categories, ‘human’ and ‘rights,’ with some difficult examples of the political, social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions of claims made in these terms. What are humans and what count as rights, if any? We will ask about the foundations of rights claims; about legal, political, non-violent and violent ways of advancing, defending and enforcing them; about the documents and institutions of the human rights movement; and about the questionable ‘reality’ of human rights in our world. Is there such a thing as ‘our’ world? The answers are not obvious. We will try to find them by exploring, among other things, the French and American revolutions, the ‘decline of the nation-state’ (Arendt), humanitarian intervention (medical and military), public space and democracy, testimony and information (from Shoah to the CNN effect), war crimes and the concept of the civilian, and the challenges to human rights orthodoxy posed by terrorism and the wars against it. Using The Face of Human Rights (Walter Kalin) as our primary text, along with work in philosophy, history, literature, politics, and with the contemporary news flow, we will examine some tricky cases and troubled places, among them our own.

HR 120 Human Rights Law and Practice

An intensive introduction to human rights law and practice. The course combines an inquiry into the historical and theoretical underpinnings of human rights with case studies that introduce the issues, actors, institutions and laws that constitute the contemporary practice of human rights. In the last decades, human rights has come to occupy a powerful space in international law, political rhetoric, activism and the news cycle. Where did that come from? When and why did it come about? What other options did it displace? In trying to find the answers, we will explore the writing of historians, theorists and practitioners, with special attention to the disagreements and tensions among them that help to elucidate the range of possibilities. The case studies will give us the opportunity to see how the issues play out, and where we situate ourselves in the process. Finally, we will learn a little bit of law, but we will do it in the context of people struggling – typically, against, states – to assert and extend their rights.

HR 105 Human Rights Advocacy

An introduction to human rights advocacy, with a practical component. Half of the course focuses on the history and theory of human rights advocacy: what is it to make claims for human rights, or to denounce their violation, especially on behalf of others?  How and when and why have individuals and groups spoken out, mounted campaigns, published reports and exposés?  How do they address, challenge, and sometimes work with governments and international organizations like the United Nations? We will look at human rights advocacy from the campaign to abolish the slave trade to the founding of Amnesty International to the Save Darfur movement.  How has the human rights movement come to be defined by transnational advocacy networks – and how do they in turn define what human rights are?  This half of the course serves as an introduction to human rights work as a mode of legal and political practice.  The other half of the course involves hands-on work with the human rights organization Scholars at Risk on some of their cases of detained or threatened scholars.  We will  research specific events and individuals,  communicate with families and lawyers and other advocates, write country and case profiles, propose strategies and tactics for pressuring governments and other powerful actors, and develop appeals to public opinion  — all while recognizing the ethical and political risks this work may involve.  Readings include texts by Samuel Moyn, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Adam Hochschild, Kenneth Cmiel, Stephen Hopgood, Rebecca Hamilton, and others. Taught in conjunction with a parallel seminar at Bard College Berlin.  Information about Scholars at Risk can be found at

HR 214 A History of International Human Rights Law

Is there a relationship between the rise of capitalism as a simultaneously globalizing/localizing force and the emergence of international human rights law? Are there intersections in the histories of the nation-state, humanitarian law, and international human rights law? These are some of the questions animating this course, which aims to question the characterization of international human rights law as the evolution of human civilization and humanitarian sensibility. Legal declarations, treaties, conventions, agreements, and the writings of selected jurists and political philosophers from the early modern period onward will be examined in light of the particular historical circumstances they were responding to in order to reach a non-teleological understanding of the contemporary international human rights legal framework.

HR 215 History of Human Rights

International human rights is both young and old. The core ideas stretch back at least as far as the Enlightenment, but the founders of the modern movement are just reaching retirement.   And while it is increasingly well established in international law, politics and the activities of nongovernmental organizations, there is still considerable debate over what human rights is and what it is intended to achieve: Is it a movement, an ideology or a set of laws? And is its purpose to pressure repressive countries, to provide a constitution for the world, or, more nefariously, to facilitate economic globalization? In the last decade, through books ranging from autobiographies to angry polemics, the debate has emerged in competing views about what constitutes the history of human rights. While telling the story of human rights, these histories also expose the tension and controversy that underlie the movement, itself. Readings will include founding figures of the modern movement like Louis Henkin and AryehNeier,, distinguished journalists like Adam Hochschild and historians Lynn Hunt, Samuel Moyn, Carol Anderson, Elizabeth Borgwardt, Ken Cmiel and more.

HR 226 Women’s Rights, Human Rights

This course provides students with a broad overview of women’s struggles for liberation from the global patterns of masculine domination. Following a brief overview of first wave feminism, the bulk of the course engages students with second wave feminism—including, the critical appropriations and contestations of marxism, structuralism & psychoanalysis characteristic of post ’68 feminist theory—post-structuralist theories of sexual difference, écriture féminine, 70s debates surrounding the NOW & ERA movements, and turning at the end of the course to the issues of race & class at the center of third wave feminism. While serving as a survey of the major developments in feminist theoretical discourse, the course is framed from a global human rights perspective, always mindful of issues ranging from suffrage, property rights & Equal Pay, to forced marriage, reproductive rights & maternal mortality, female genital mutilation, sex-trafficking, & prostitution, to coeducation, Lesbian, & Transgender rights. Readings may include texts ranging from Wollstonecraft, Stopes & Fuller, to Beauvoir, Friedan, Solanas, Koedt, Dworkin, Duggan, MacKinnon, & Allison (the “Feminist Sex Wars”), to Rubin, Wittig, De Lauretis, Traub, Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous, Butler, Walker, Baumgardner, Richards, Moraga, Andalzùa, et al.

HR / PS 231 Humanitarian Military Intervention

When should states use military force to alleviate human suffering?  Does the need to intervene to stop human rights violations outweigh the right of states to maintain control over territory? The international states system is built upon the principles of sovereignty and nonintervention. Yet over the past two decades human rights have emerged as an increasingly accepted justification legitimizing the use of force.  This apparent tension between the respect for state sovereignty and the inevitable violations that result from the use of military force for humanitarian purposes is at the center of the debate over human rights in the field of international relations. This course explores the dilemmas and controversies surrounding the use of force for humanitarian purposes. The first part examines the major ethical, political and strategic arguments for and against humanitarian military intervention. The second part focuses on specific instances where states undertook, or failed to undertake, a humanitarian military intervention (for example, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan, Libya and Syria, among others). Through an examination of particular case studies, we will better understand why the international community has such an inconsistent record of stopping humanitarian crises and what the limitations and possibilities of human rights are in international politics.

HIST 2356 American Indian History

Turtle Island, Dinétah, and Dawnland all speak to different perspectives on what we currently call the United States. How does our understanding of America change when we take seriously Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s invocation to put forward an “Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States?” This course offers an introduction to the turning points and events experienced and remembered by and among Native peoples, Africans/African Americans, and European settler colonists from the fifteenth through the twenty-first centuries. Special attention will be paid to connecting early modern history with contemporary controversies and issues facing Indigenous communities today. Through a focus on archival power dynamics and primary source work, students will learn the methods used by academics and activists working in Native American and Indigenous Studies to evaluate questions of Native American politics, including financial and land reparations, sovereignty, and cultural revitalization and repatriation.

HR 234 Defining the Human

At least since Aristotle, philosophers have sought to delineate the contours of the human, to define what it means to be a specifically human being. To define what it means to be human is at once to exclude those modes of being deemed not human—a process of exclusion that produces various categories of otherness as non-human, or even inhuman. In this course, students engage with a range of theoretical discussions that attempt to situate the human being vis-à-vis its “other,” traditionally as a kind of intermediary being, poised uncomfortably between animality, on the one hand, and divinity, on the other. Readings may include: Greco Roman & Judeo-Christian conceptions of the human (Aristotle, Paul, Augustine Luther); 17th-and 18th-century theories of “human nature” (e.g., Hobbes, Larochefoucauld, Mandeville, LaMettrie, Condillac, Rousseau, Herder, Kant, Schiller); 19th century Social Darwinism (Spencer) and Philosophy (Marx, Nietzsche); contemporary socio-biology (Wilson, et. Al.); Philosophical Anthropology (Teilhard, Bergson, Bataille, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Scheler, Uexküll, Plessner, Gehlen) and Post-structuralism (Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault).

HR 240 Observation and Description

We will study the observation and description of reality as a fundamental and daunting problem for human rights. Pain, violence, victimization, and injustice have long been a part of human reality.  Can we change, or are we doomed to repeat ourselves and kill and torture one another until the end of time?  The answer is not obvious. But one thing is certain: as long as we stay in the cave, in obscurity, and only look at shadows, we are not going to resolve this conundrum. Going into the world, trying to look at it and describe it, is the only way for us to escape that cavern of ideology, of disempowering shadows and ghosts. And while there is no such a thing as truth or objectivity, this process of trying to understand what we see, how we see it and how to describe it, brings us closer to a resolution — by action — of this fundamental question. In order to reach the point of rawness where we reformulate for ourselves what observation and description are, we must escape the predicament and predictability of known methods and forms.  We need to position ourselves in a no-man’s land, beyond traditional specializations in knowledge and practice. In this seminar, we are out to re-appropriate reality, to get at perception before it has been shaped as expression, to see images in the heart and eye before they harden as categories, styles, definitions — and if it is possible to do so, to reconcile the layers of meanings and to pull from all these contradictions some organized process, where the documentary act begins.  We will focus on visual awareness, not as an illustration of ideas, but as a seed for ideas in themselves. We will try, through examples and assignments, to investigate how non-professionals can use not only current technologies but also new visual attitudes, so that reports and communications can escape their usual dreariness, so that human rights reporting can be formalized in such a way as to escape its own ghetto and be made attractive, visually and emotionally engaging to the largest possible audience.

HR 241 Law & Society: Constitutions

The constitution stands at the intersection of law and society. It is many things: a basic law, a social contract, a statement of aspirations and a road map for governance. It application reflects the continuing struggles of a society to define itself through law. Constitutionalism has been a feature of the modern state for several centuries. Written constitutions with elaborate human rights provisions enforced by ‘courts’ are a very recent innovation. In the course of 50 years, they have gone from being a relative rarity to a widespread norm. This class will look at the theory and practice of constitutionalism across different countries and regions, focusing particularly on the recent decades. After anchoring the discussion in historical sources and the peculiar role of the US constitution, we will look at ‘cases and controversies’ from other countries, including France, Germany, India, South Africa, Israel and parts of South America.

HR 245 Humanism and Antihumanism in 20th Century French Thought

What is the legacy of humanism and its very long tradition in twentieth-century French thought? So strong was once the belief in its values that humanism came to be equated, in France, with republicanism and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. And yet, the humanists’ affirmation of the centrality of man – the “measure of all things” –, their faith in the dignity of man, their commitment to reason, progress and universal truth came under severe attack throughout the century, under the influence of Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, to be ultimately denounced as nothing more than a construct of “petit bourgeois” ideology. Althusser praised Marx for having reduced to ashes the “myth” of man, Foucault celebrated its disappearances “like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea”, and Derrida painstakingly undermined the metaphysical foundation of subjectivity. What happens to ethics and politics when what appears to be its very foundation is withdrawn? Does antihumanism signal the end of responsibility? This course surveys the ongoing, contentious and often violent debate between humanism and antihumanism in France throughout the 20th century. Our goal will be to understand, for instance, how Sartre, who ferociously mocked humanism in the 1930s came to declare, after the war, that Existentialism is a Humanism; to grasp why Simone de Beauvoir could plead for an Ethics of Ambiguity while Camus condemned all form of revolutionary action, even when conducted in the name of justice. Along the way, we will examine how this debate is tied to the understanding of the role of the intellectual, and issues of colonialism, feminism, political activism and environmentalism. Texts include fictions and essays by Antelme, Bataille, de Beauvoir, Benda, Bergson, Camus, Deleuze, Derrida, Fanon, Ferry, Foucault, Irigaray, Lévinas, Malraux, Merleau-Ponty, Mounier, Nizan, Rancière, Ricœur, Sartre, Todorov, Weil and others.


HR / HIST 2702 The History of Liberties, Rights and Human Rights, 1215 to Present

The history of ‘human rights’ can formally be said to have come into existence only with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the successor conventions that ultimately formed the International Bill of Human Rights. Both the declaration and its later instantiations were created in reaction to the problems of genocide and mass population transfers (and consequent loss of citizenship) during the Second World War. This course will begin by examining the fatal gaps in the previous system of nationally instantiated “universal” rights as they were initially developed in Europe and selectively applied to or adopted by its colonies. Beginning with the pursuit of liberties in peasant communes and early modern law, we will examine the creation of national rights from the treaty of Westphalia through the British, American, and French revolutions, and the relation of these rights to colonial administration. The post-war institutions of human rights provided a new justification for a universal and ‘open’ standard of laws and fealty (often compared to imperial Rome) and ultimately provided new legitimation for the selective intervention of stronger powers in the affairs of weaker political or legal entities. By focusing on case studies, particularly those from the contrasting cases of the European Union and United States, the relation of human rights to hegemonic power will be examined in detail. The course will also examine the relation of politics to the infrastructures that made both widespread human rights infractions and their curtailment possible. The role of media (telegraph, radio, etc.), systems of organization (passports, criminal archives) and police (secret police, international monitors) will be considered as modern transnational phenomenon that are intimately connected with the development and fate of enforcing human rights norms. The final section of the course will look at the role of international NGO’s in both monitoring human rights and criticizing the state of existing human rights law, particularly in their criticism of human rights as a product of a particular north Atlantic perspective and set of biases.

ANTH / HR 233 Problems in Human Rights

This course approaches a set of practical and ethical human rights issues through the study of historical and contemporary campaigns, starting with the British anti-slavery movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The emphasis is on practical questions of strategy and organization and the problems that arise from these. What were the challenges that early campaigners faced? How did they resolve them?  What alliances of interest did they confront? And what coalitions did they form to combat them? The course also considers how human rights campaigners have engaged with – and been part of – wider political, religious and economic changes. It examines the negotiations and compromises that led to a key event in the twentieth-century human rights history: the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Has the subsequent success of the human rights movement – particularly the expansion of international human rights legislation – changed its character?  The course examines the landmine ban campaign, the campaign against female genital cutting and the campaign against child soldiers – and considers the ideological challenges these issues present to the international human rights regime. When, if ever, are indigenous values more important than universal principles? What is the relation of human rights to religious values? Is human rights itself a quasi-religious belief system? Finally the course considers some contemporary challenges facing the human rights movement: the return of slavery and slave-like practices and the question of genocide in Darfur, in particular the role of the International Criminal Court.

ANTH 261 Anthropology of Violence and Suffering

Why do acts of violence continue to grow in the ‘modern’ world? In what ways has violence become naturalized in the contemporary world? In this course, we will consider how acts of violence challenge and support modern ideas of humanity, raising important questions about what it means to be human today. These questions lie at the heart of anthropological thinking and also structure contemporary discussions of human rights. Anthropology’s commitment to “local culture” and cultural diversity has meant that anthropologists often position themselves in critical opposition to “universal values,” which have been used to address various forms of violence in the contemporary world. The course will approach different forms of violence, including ethnic and communal conflicts, colonial education, torture and its individualizing effects, acts of terror and institutionalized fear, and rituals of bodily pain that mark individuals’ inclusion or exclusion from a social group. The course is organized around three central concerns. First, we will discuss violence as a means of producing and consolidating social and political power, and exerting political control. Second, we will look at forms of violence that have generated questions about “universal rights” of humanity versus culturally specific practices, such as widow burning in India and female genital mutilation in postcolonial Africa. In these examples, we explore gendered dimensions in the experience of violence among perpetrators, victims, and survivors. Finally, we will look at the ways human rights institutions have sought to address the profundity of human suffering and pain, and ask in what ways have they succeeded and/or failed. Readings will range from theoretical texts, anthropological ethnographies, as well as popular representations of violence in the media and film.

ANTH 262 Colonialism, Law, and Human Rights in Africa

This course examines the colonial and missionary legacies of contemporary discourses of human rights and development. We will take a rigorously critical eye to examining how why and to what effect Western donor agencies, states, and individuals unwittingly draw on centuries old tropes of poverty, degradation, and helplessness of non-Western peoples. Specifically we will use historical descriptions of the encounters between Europeans and Africans in West Africa and South Africa to show how Western assumptions about African societies reveal the contradictions at the root of liberal discourses of aid and development. In this way we will interrogate how “aid” implies the idea of a Western individual, rights-bearing economic subject which has implications for the development of global capitalism. We will also look at case studies from Ghana, Nigeria, and post-Apartheid South Africa to examine the real legacies of human rights and development causes for the people involved. We will look at the dual legacy of British colonial law, and the relationship between customary law and state courts as a primary site for understanding conflicts over rights, citizenship, and the role of the individual in society. We will posit complex historical and cultural ways of understanding particular cases.

ARTH 289 Rights and the Image

An examination of the relationship between visual culture and human rights, using case studies that range in time from the early modern period (marking the body to register criminality, for example) to the present day (images from Abu Ghraib). Subjects addressed include evidence, disaster photography, advocacy images, censorship, and visibility and invisibility.

HIST 2631 Capitalism and Slavery

Scholars have argued that there is an intimate relationship between the contemporary wealth of the developed world and the money generated through four hundred years of chattel slavery in the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade. Is there something essential that links capitalism, even liberal democratic capitalism, to slavery? How have struggles against slavery and for freedom and rights, dealt with this connection? This course will investigate the development of this linkage, studying areas like the gender dynamics of early modern Atlantic slavery, the correlation between coercive political and economic authority, and the financial implications of abolition and emancipation. We will focus on North America and the Caribbean from the early 17th century articulation of slavery through the staggered emancipations of the 19th century. The campaign against the slave trade has been called the first international human rights movement – today does human rights discourse simply provide a human face for globalized capitalism, or offer an alternative vision to it? Questions of contemporary reparations, rising colonialism and markets of the nineteenth century, and the ‘duty’ of the Americas to Africa will also be considered. Readings will include foundational texts on capitalism and a variety of historical approaches to the problem of capitalism within slavery, from economic, cultural, and intellectual perspectives. There are no prerequisites, although HIST 130, 2133, or 263 all serve as introductory backgrounds.

LIT 218 Free Speech

An introduction to debates about freedom of expression. The course will examine the ways in which rights, language, privacy and publicity have been linked together in ideas about democracy. What is ‘freedom of speech’? Is there a right to say anything? Why? We will investigate who has had this right, where it has come from, and what it has had to do in particular with literature. What powers does speech have, who has the power to speak, and for what? Debates about censorship, hate speech, the Firstamendment and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be obvious starting points, but we will also explore some less obvious questions: about faith and the secular, confession and torture, surveillance, the emergence of political agency. In asking about the status of the speaking human subject, we will look at the ways in which the subject of rights, and indeed the thought of human rights itself, derives from a ‘literary’ experience. These questions will be examined, if not answered, across a variety of literary, philosophical, legal and political texts, with a heavy dose of case studies (many of them happening right now) and readings in contemporary critical and legal theory.

LIT/ HR 2509 Telling Stories About Rights

What difference can fiction make in struggles for rights and justice? And what can this effort to represent injustice, suffering, or resistance tell us about about fiction and literature? This course will focus on a wide range of fictions, from a variety of writers with different backgrounds, that tell unusual stories about the rights of individuals and communities to justice. We will read novels addressing human migration, injustices committed in the name of the state against a minority, and the harsh conditions under which some communities operate as part of their survival strategy, among other topics. We will look at the ways in which literary forms can allow universalizing claims to be made, exploring how racism, disenfranchisement, poverty, and lack of access to education and health care, for instance, can affect the dignity of all humans. Readings may include: Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Garcia Marquez; Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson; Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg; Our Nig by Harriet Wilson; Balzac & the Chinese Seamstress by Sijai Dai; Winter is in the Blood by James Welch ; The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday; Wolves of the Crescent Moon by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, and Bound to Violence by Yambo Ouleguem. We will also watch a number of films based on the novels (including Chronicles, Smilla’s Sense, Balzac, Snow Falling), and The First Grader (2001, on the right to education in Kenya)

PHIL 130 Philosophy & Human Rights

From the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, to privacy and marriage, the language of rights permeates our understanding of political life, of citizenship, and of personhood itself. Yet the foundation, function, and limits of human rights remain deeply puzzling and highly contested – perhaps more so today than any time in recent history. What are human rights and what is their source? What is the relationship between human rights and human nature, human rights and morality, human rights and law, human rights and freedom? Can any human right truly be universal? In this course, we will attempt to answer these questions by exploring the philosophical underpinnings, justifications, and criticisms of human rights.

PS 145 Human Rights in Global Politics

This course aims to familiarize students with the principal historical and sociological explanations behind the rise of human rights, its principal actors, institutions and legal frameworks, and the main international, regional and national settings in which the debates and practices of human rights take place. The course is divided into three core sections. The first explores the origins of the notion of human rights, taking into consideration the importance of such historical developments as the atrocities of World War II, especially those committed by Germany’s Nazi regime, and sociological explanations derived from theories of modernization and globalization and the main actors and institutions in the human rights arena, from the basic legal framework of human rights standards (e.g., the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, to name a few), to the role of major international players, such as the United States and the European Community, to powerful non-governmental actors such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and the Center for Transitional Justice. The second part examines human rights activism in action, such as humanitarian interventions against genocide and the process of transitional justice in nations exiting political regimes notorious for their human rights abuses. The third and final section examines the dominant debates within the human rights movement, such as the rejection of the expansive “Western” view of human rights in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and the increasing scrutiny being paid to how mature democracies, like the United States, often fail to conform to internationally-accepted human rights norms.

SPAN 240 Testimonial Literature

This course provides the opportunity for students to engage critically with texts that serve as a public forum for voices often silenced in the past. Students will also learn about the broader context of the hemisphere’s history through the particular experiences of women from Bolivia, Guatemala, Argentina, Mexico, and the U.S.-Latino community, including Rigoberta Menchú, Domitila Barrios de Chungara, and Cherríe Moraga. We will read testimonial accounts documenting the priorities and concerns of women who have been marginalized for reasons of poverty, ethnic difference, political ideologies, or sexual preference. The semester will be devoted to analyzing the formin which their memories are represented textually, and to the discussion of the historical circumstances that have led to their marginalization. Some of the central questions that will organize our discussions are: how to represent memories of violence and pain? What are the ultimate effects of mediations of the written word, translations to hegemonic languages, and the interventions of well-intentioned intellectuals? How best to use writing as a mechanism to trace a space for dignity and “difference”? We will integrate films that portray the issues and time-periods documented in the diaries and testimonial narratives to be read – including “Men With Guns”, “El Norte,” “Historia oficial,” and “Rojo amanecer.”


HR 242 Arguing With the Supreme Court (About Rights)

Supreme Court arguments bring to bear a vast range of research and reflection on the law, policy and politics of our society, including major issues of human rights.  Recent terms have included cases on health care, gay marriage, freedom of speech, religious freedom and the place of race in education.  The Supreme Court decisions are undeniably important.  The arguments give life to the range of possibilities from which the decisions emerge.  Behind them is a often undervalued process in which communities of interest engage in an ornate ritual of advocacy that presents an even wider range of arguments.  In this class, we will dig deeply into 7 cases from the last two years.  We will listen to tapes of the Supreme Court argument, read and analyze the background documents (“briefs”) submitted to the court and research the major arguments and actors.  Along with the substance of the cases, the course is intended to teach some basics about the mechanics of Constitutional law in the United States and the nature of human rights debate as it is channeled through that law.