ASTK15385U COURSE: Righting wrongs or wronging rights? Human rights and their discontents

Volume 2015/2016

Bachelor level: 10 ECTS
Master level: 7,5 ECTS




Few norms, discourses or ideologies have triumphed more quickly or universally than that of human rights in the 20th century. On the one hand, it has undoubtedly become one of the most powerful languages employed by the oppressed and the rightless to claim equality, rights and justice. On the other hand, controversies, criticisms and resistance have always accompanied the various facets of the human rights project: its philosophical foundations, the regime and the practice. Is the idea of human rights bound to either emancipation or domination? Is the ‘bottom-up’ movement a better approach to human rights than the ‘top-down’ intervention? Are those critiques of human rights referring to imposing the ideology of ‘the rich on the poor’ or the tendency of victimization merely based on the coincidental abuse of an essentially good idea by hegemonic powers, or, are they rooted in the contested nature of the idea itself? This course will provide an overview of the topic as discussed in political theory and international relations, with a focus on the paradoxes and ambiguities involved in its philosophy and practice. We will start with introducing the intellectual resources of human rights and the historical background of the international human rights regime (Part I); we will then explore the main strands of critique against different notions and dimensions of human rights (Part II). In Part III, we will investigate some issues of controversy in the implementation of human rights with the help of multimedia materials.


The course is expected to be structured under the following weekly headings:

  1. < >Part I Historical Background


    1. The ‘Rights of Man’ before human rights

    2. Human rights, imperialism and colonialism

    3. The birth of the international human rights regime

    Part II Wronging rights

    1. Human rights and sovereign power

    2. The poststructuralist critique

    3. The postcolonial critique

    4. The question of universality


    5. Workshop on the written assignment

    Part III Righting wrongs: practices in focus

    1. Humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect

    2. Human rights and border wars

    3. Humanitarian government and global politics

    4. The emerging fields of group rights


      The course will enhance the students’ abilities in conceptual discussion and critical analysis. It will help students develop their specialized projects in Political Theory or International Relations. It is also relevant to those who aim for a career in public administration, NGOs, think tanks and media.

Learning Outcome

The objective of the course is to enable the students to:

  • Demonstrate a good understanding of the intellectual resources of human rights

  • Describe different notions and dimensions of human rights, and understand the conceptual tensions within the cluster of meanings

  • Identify and compare critiques of the philosophy and practice of human rights in political and IR theories

  • critically analyse one or more actual cases in relation to the relevant theoretical or historical problems.

Preliminary syllabus

  1. Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer. Stanford Calif.: Stanford University Press, pp.126-143.

  2. An-Na’im, A. (2000). Islam and Human Rights: Beyond the Universality Debate. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law) Vol. 94, pp. 95-103

  3. Arendt, H. (1949): “The Right of Man”: What are They? In Modern Review 3, 1, pp. 24-36.

  4. Balibar, É. (2007). (De) Constructing the Human as Human Institution: A Reflection on the Coherence of Hannah Arendt’s Practical Philosophy. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 74(3), 727–738.

  5. Barreto, Jose-Manuel (2012) Introduction. In Barreto, Jose-Manuel (ed.): Human Rights from a Third Worlds Perspective. Critique, History and International Law. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

  6. Baxi, U. (2002). The future of human rights. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. (Chapter 5)

  7. Benhabib, S. (2004). The rights of others: aliens, residents, and citizens. Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 2)

  8. Bertrand G. Ramcharan, ’The Law-Making Process: From Declaration to Treaty to Custom to Prevention’ in Dinah Shelton (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of International Human Rights Law (OUP 2014)

  9. Brown, W. (2004). “The Most We Can Hope For...”: Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism. South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2-3), 451–463.

  10. Chandler, D. (2001). Universal Ethics and Elite Politics: The Limits of Normative Human Rights Theory. The International Journal of Human Rights, 5(4), 72–89.

  11. Chandler, D. (2012). Understanding the gap between the promise and reality of the responsibility to protect. In P. Cunliffe (Ed.), Critical Perspectives on the Responsibility to Protect (pp. 19–34). New York: Routledge.

  12. Cornelisse, G. (2010). Immigration detention and human rights: rethinking territorial sovereignty. Leiden: BRILL. (Chapter 3.4)

  13. Dembour, M.-B. (2010). What Are Human Rights? Four Schools of Thought. Human Rights Quarterly, 32, 1, 1-20.

  14. Dembour, M.-B., & Kelly, T. (2013). Introduction. In M.-B. Dembour & T. Kelly (Eds.), Are human rights for migrants? Critical Reflections on the Status of Irregular Migrants in Europe and the United States (pp. 1–21). New York: Routledge.

  15. Douzinas, C. (2007). Human rights and empire : the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism. London; New York: Routledge-Cavendish. (Chapter 5)

  16. Douzinas, C. (2007). Human rights and empire: the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism. London; New York: Routledge-Cavendish. (Chapter 1)

  17. Fassin, D. (2007). Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life. Public Culture, 19(3), 499–520.

  18. Feser, E. (2012). The metaphysical foundations of natural rights. In T. Cushman (Eds.), Handbook of Human Rights. London; New York: Routledge.

  19. Iglesias Sánchez, S. (2014). Fundamental Rights and Citizenship of the Union at a Crossroads: A Promising Alliance or a Dangerous Liaison? European Law Journal, 20(4), 464–481.

  20. Kant, I. ([1795]2006). Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. In P. Kleingeld (Eds.), Toward perpetual peace and other writings on politics, peace and history. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

  21. Kapur, Ratna (2006): Human Rights in the 21st Century: Take a Walk on the Dark Side. In: The Sydney Law Review 28, 4, pp. 665-688.

  22. Käpylä, J., & Kennedy, D. (2014). Cruel to care? Investigating the governance of compassion in the humanitarian imaginary. International Theory (Vol. 6, pp. 255–292).

  23. Kostakopoulou, D. (2005). Ideas, Norms and European Citizenship: Explaining Institutional Change. The Modern Law Review, 68(2), 233–267.

  24. Michael O’Boyle and Michelle Lafferty, ’General Principles and Constitutions as Sources of Human Rights Law’ in Dinah Shelton (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of International Human Rights Law (OUP 2014)

  25. Moyn, S. (2010). The last utopia: human rights in history. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. (Chapter 1)

  26. Rancière, J. (2004). Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man? South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2-3), 297–310.

  27. Rancière, J. (2006). Democracy, Republic, Representation. Constellations, 13(3), 297 – 307.

  28. Stahn, C. (2007). Responsibility to Protect: Political Rhetoric or Emerging Legal Norm? The American Journal of International Law, 101(1), 99–120.

  29. Wall, I. (2012). Human rights and constituent power: without model or warranty. Abingdon Oxon; New York: Routledge.(Chapter 2)

  30. Walters, W. (2011). Foucault and Frontiers: Notes on the Birth of the Humanitarian Border. In U. Bröckling, S. Krasmann, & T. Lemke (Eds.), Governmentality: current issues and future challenges (pp. 138–164). New York: Routledge.

  31. Weiler, J. H. H. Fundamental human rights as an exception to the freedom of movement of goods. Jean Monnet Working Paper 06/04.

  32. Žižek, Slavoj (2005) 'Against Human Rights',New Left Review 34.


Students should have a basic knowledge of political theory or international relations (IR) theory. An interest in other global issues such as development, migration and social movement is preferred.
The course will combine various types of teaching and learning methods including lectures, guest lectures, student presentations, group discussions and film/video screening. It places great emphasis on motivated participation of the students.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Course Preparation
  • 98
  • Exam
  • 10
  • Exam Preparation
  • 30
  • Exercises
  • 10
  • Preparation
  • 30
  • Total
  • 206
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written examination
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
External censorship
Criteria for exam assesment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner