PS 317 The Politics of Human Rights

Human rights constitute a central and inescapable ideal in the contemporary world. Governments around the globe routinely commit themselves to upholding human rights, and many states have signed landmark international human rights agreements. The promotion of human rights is, moreover, a fundamental principle of the United Nations and thus of the “international community,” such as it exists. This course is an introduction to the central concepts, laws, and debates in the field of international human rights. In the first half of the course, we will examine fundamental questions such as: What are human rights? What are the philosophical, religious, and historical foundations of human rights? What are the main international human rights agreements? What are some problems with those agreements? What are the main international institutions that handle human rights? Are human rights universal? How are human rights enforced? And what role do non-governmental organizations play in this field? In the second half of the course, we will focus on two central and complex human rights issues. First, we will examine the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities. We will examine the variety of policy tools available to domestic and international actors to mitigate or stop mass violations of human rights. As part of our study, we will explore several cases, including Iraq, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Libya, Syria, and Burundi. Second, we will examine various approaches to accounting for past human rights abuses, including international courts, foreign courts, domestic courts, truth commissions, and “traditional” forms of justice. Again, we will focus on particular cases, such as the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, and South Africa—among others. A central proposition throughout the course is that human rights cannot be separated from politics. Indeed, we cannot understand either why human rights abuses happen or why international actors respond to human rights abuses in the way they do without examining the political contexts in which the abuses and policies take place.