Human Rights in International Relations (825M9A)

30 credits, Level 7 (Masters)

Autumn teaching

As the 20th century neared its end, holocaust survivor and human rights advocate Eli Wiesel proclaimed that human rights were fast becoming the world’s secular religion. Taking up this provocation, this module interrogates the rise to prominence of 'human rights'. It probes the origins, diverse theorisations and global political contentions of human rights, while interrogating the assumed ascendance of human rights in international politics.

In the current context where human rights appear embattled, you will take a critical approach to human rights as a colonial, political and historical 'artefact'. The module begins with an examination of the debate over the historical origins of rights, examining dominant – and, as we shall see, Eurocentric – narratives that locate the emergence of rights alongside the European Enlightenment and western liberalism. We will:

  • question the silences of these rather triumphalist 'origin' stories by revisiting the history of slavery, colonialism and settler-colonialism, as well as decolonisation struggles
  • interrogate claims about the coloniality of human rights, examining particularly who the subject of rights has been historically and how this is linked to forms of exclusionary understandings of who the ‘human’ of human rights is in gendered and racialised terms in the prevalent assumptions of free and autonomous rights holders
  • survey critically certain prominent ways of defining and understanding human rights.

The module, moreover, allows you to explore key international practices of human rights and the debates that emerge around these, for example,

  • the contention that rights claims for women's and 'gay' rights are entangled with hetero- and homo-normativity
  • how practices of human rights advocacy are mired in significant power relations and are animated by the 'problem of speaking for (and over) 'weaker', helpless others
  • the ways in which human rights challenge and modify state sovereignty, looking at the evolution of 'sovereignty as responsibility' alongside the wider concern over armed intervention as a remnant of colonialism within postcolonial global politics
  • the debate on states of emergency and counter-terrorism as necessitating the suspension of rights and liberties, as well as concrete racial and political implications of counter-terrorism
  • the potential and limits of rights-based approaches to resist the worst excesses of denigration of human rights by business in the neoliberal world economy.


100%: Seminar


100%: Written assessment (Essay)

Contact hours and workload

This module is approximately 300 hours of work. This breaks down into about 33 hours of contact time and about 267 hours of independent study. The University may make minor variations to the contact hours for operational reasons, including timetabling requirements.

We regularly review our modules to incorporate student feedback, staff expertise, as well as the latest research and teaching methodology. We’re planning to run these modules in the academic year 2023/24. However, there may be changes to these modules in response to COVID-19, staff availability, student demand or updates to our curriculum. We’ll make sure to let our applicants know of material changes to modules at the earliest opportunity.