COURSE: Righting wrongs or wronging rights? Human rights and its discontents

Course content

Few norms, discourses or ideologies have triumphed more quickly and 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. Introduction

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 the sovereign state
  2. The poststructuralist critique
  3. The postcolonial critique
  4. Questioning universality

Part III Righting wrongs: practices in focus

  1. Humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect
  2. Free movement and fundamental rights in the EU
  3. territorial sovereignty, border control and human rights
  4. Humanitarian government
  5. Minority and 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.


Bachelorlevel: 10 ECTS
Masterlevel: 7,5 ECTS

Learning outcome

On completion of the course, students should be able to a) demonstrate a good understanding of the intellectual resources of human rights; b) identify different notions and dimensions of human rights, and understand the conceptual tensions within the cluster of meanings; c) present main critiques of the philosophy and practice of human rights in political and IR theory; d) critically analyze one or more controversial topics around the implementation of human rights with theoretical and historical consideration.

Knowledge, skills and competences:

Students will obtain knowledge on the philosophical foundations, theories, and legal frameworks of human rights. They will gain skills to analyse concrete cases in relation to issues such as migrants’ rights, minority rights and humanitarian intervention. Students will be able to critically understand the political implications of using or abusing the language of rights. .   

The course will combine various types of instruction including lectures, student presentations, film screening, group discussions and written assignments.

A detailed list of required readings will be provided at the start of the course. The following is an indicative list of core readings.


Arendt, H. (1949). ‘The Rights of Man': What Are They? Modern Review 3(1): 24-37.

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.

Bhambra, G. K., & Shilliam, R. (2009). Introduction: 'Silence' and Human Rights. In G. Bhambra & R. Shilliam (Ed.), Silencing human rights: Critical engagements with a contested project (pp.1-15). Basingstoke [England]: Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

Cunliffe, P. (2011). Critical perspectives on the responsibility to protect: Interrogating theory and practice. London: Routledge.

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.

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

Edkins, J. (2003). Humanitarianism, humanity, human. Journal of Human Rights, 2(2), 253–258.

Evans, T. (2000). Citizenship and human rights in the age of globalization. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 25(4), 415–438.

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

Gearty, C. A., & Douzinas, C. (2012). The Cambridge companion to human rights law. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. (355 p.)

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

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

Spivak, G. C. (2004). Righting wrongs. South Atlantic Quarterly, 92(10), 16–7.

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

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.


BA in political science/IR (exceptions tolerated).

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Written assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
External censorship
Criteria for exam assessment
  • 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

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28