Human Rights in Southeast Asia

Course content

Southeast Asia is home to a broad range of political regimes, from the lively yet flawed democracies of Indonesia and the Philippines, to the one-party states of Vietnam and Laos, the Islamic sultanate of Brunei, and the military-dominated regimes of Thailand and Myanmar. Most have vastly different approaches to human rights. This course will examine how human rights are understood, contested, implemented, and enforced among the diverse countries of the region. We will begin with a broad overview of key concepts, including the origins and history of human rights in Southeast Asia, major international instruments, and relevant regional and national human rights institutions. The course will examine prominent critiques of human rights, including the ‘Asian values’ debate of the 1990s, elements of which continue to be deployed by Southeast Asian states today. We will also investigate selected human rights issues, such as women’s rights, environmental rights, migrant workers’ rights, freedom of expression and association, and sexuality, as well as the role of civil society and lawyers in advocating for human rights. Interdisciplinary in scope, the course will draw on literature from law and society, politics, area studies and anthropology, as well as international human rights instruments and NGO reports and advocacy materials. It will also incorporate presentations from human rights lawyers and activists, and films.

Tentative Class Schedule:

Week 1: Introduction, origins, and fundamentals of human rights

Week 2: Critiques of human rights

Week 3: International and regional bodies, national human rights institutions

Week 4: Approaches to human rights in Southeast Asia

Week 5: Gender

Week 6: Environmental rights

Week 7: Migrant workers’ rights

Week 8: Transitional justice

Week 9: The 1965 Violence in Indonesia: “The Look of Silence” film screening

Week 10: Rights mobilisation

Week 11: Guest lecture from a prominent human rights defender

Week 12: Sexuality

Week 13: Press Freedom

Week 14: Business and Human Rights


MSc in Political Science

MSc in Social Science

MSc in Security Risk Management

Bachelor in Political Science


The course is open to:

  • Exchange and Guest students from abroad
  • Credit students from Danish Universities
  • Open University students
Learning outcome


Develop an understanding of basic human rights concepts and their operationalisation and contestation in Southeast Asia.

Develop an understanding of international and regional (Southeast Asian) human rights instruments and institutions, and their limitations.

Develop an understanding of key human rights issues in Southeast Asia, the perspectives of different Southeast Asian states towards human rights, and the political, social, economic and cultural factors that influence their positions.


Develop the skills to critically examine a broad range of materials relating to human rights in Southeast Asia, including academic articles, legal instruments, advocacy and campaign materials, and survivor testimonies.

Develop the oral and written communication skills to clearly and convincingly articulate findings and views on complex human rights issues.


Develop the capacity to work independently to critically analyse human rights issues in a range of Southeast Asian states.

Lectures: Each seminar will begin with an approximately 45-minute lecture to provide an overview of that week’s topic, underline key learning outcomes, and frame subsequent discussions/activities.

Class discussion: Students will analyse weekly readings and discuss their findings. Students will be provided with a list of guiding questions ahead of each class to help guide their reflections.

Guided activities: Students will be supported to engage in activities such as collaborative small group work and case studies that build further on the assigned readings.

The following reading list is indicative and may be subject to change.

Week 1: Introduction, origins and fundamentals of human rights

Required readings:

Dembour, Marie-Bénédicte. 2010. “What Are Human Rights? Four Schools of Thought.” Human Rights Quarterly 32(1): 1–20.

Sharom, Azmi; Purnama, Hadi Rahmat; Mullen, Matthew; Asuncion, Melizel; and Hayes, Michael (eds). 2017. “Chapter 1: The Fundamentals of Human Rights” in An Introduction to Human Rights in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian Human Rights Studies Network (SEAHRN), Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. 1-28.

Recommended readings:

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). 1948. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Ignatieff, Michael, 2003. “Human Rights as Idolatry”, in Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 53-100.

Week 2: Critiques of human rights

Required readings:

Mutua, Makau. 2016. “Is The Age of Human Rights Over?” In Sophia A. McClennen and Alexandra Schultheis Moore (eds), The Routledge Companion to Literature and Human Rights. Abingdon: Routledge.

Randall Peerenboom. 2003. “Beyond Universalism and Relativism: The Evolving Debates about ‘Values in Asia’”, Indiana International and Comparative Law Review 14(1). 1–86

Posner, Eric. 2014. “The case against human rights” The Guardian, 4 December,

Recommended readings:

Langford, Malcolm. 2018. “Critiques of Human Rights”. Annual Review of Law and Social Science 14. 69-89.

Week 3:International and regional bodies, national human rights institutions

Required readings:

Yuyun Wahyuningrum. 2021. “A decade of institutionalizing human rights in ASEAN: Progress and challenges”, Journal of Human Rights 20(2). 158-175

Davies, Mathew. 2021. “How regional organizations respond to human rights: ASEAN’s ritualism in comparative perspective”, Journal of Human Rights 20(2). 245-262,

Charlesworth, Hilary, and Larking, Emma. 2015. “Introduction: The regulatory power of the Universal Periodic Review”. In Hilary Charlesworth and Emma Larking (eds), Human Rights and the Universal Periodic Review: Rituals and Ritualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-22.

Recommended readings:

Crouch, Melissa. 2013. “Asian Legal Transplants and Rule of Law Reform: National Human Rights Commission in Myanmar and Indonesia”. Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 5(2). 146-177.

ASEAN. 2013. “ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.”

Week 4: Approaches to human rights in Southeast Asia

Required readings:

Rich, Roland. 2011. “An Appreciation of the Human Rights Situation in Southeast Asia.” In Aurel Croissant and Marco Bünte (eds), The Crisis of Democratic Governance in Southeast Asia, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. 171-189.

Bünte, Marco, 2017. “Human Rights in Southeast Asia: From Contestation to Compliance?”, in Marco Bünte and Björn Dressel (eds). Politics and Constitutions in Southeast Asia. London: Routledge. 163-185.

Recommended reading:

Duxbury, Alison, and Hsien-Li Tan. 2019. “Understanding the Tensions and Ambiguities in Southeast Asian Attitudes Towards Human Rights”. In Can ASEAN Take Human Rights Seriously? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 64-169.

Week 5: Gender

Required readings:

Roces, Mina. 2022. “Gender in Southeast Asia”. Elements in Politics and Society in Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rinaldo, Rachel. 2014. “Pious and Critical: Muslim Women Activists and the Question of Agency”. Gender & Society 28(6). 824–846.

Recommended readings:

Duerto-Valero, Sara, Kaul, Sneha and Chanchai, Ryce. 2021. “ASEAN Gender Outlook”. ASEAN and UN Women.

Parisi, Laura. 2017. "Feminist Perspectives on Human Rights." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies.

Fraser, Julie. 2020. “Role of Islamic Law and Institutions in Implementing Women’s Right to Family Planning in Indonesia”. In Julie Fraser, Social Institutions and International Human Rights Law Implementation: Every Organ of Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 164-267.

Week 6: Environmental rights

Dressler, Wolfram. 2021. “Defending lands and forests: NGO histories, everyday struggles, and extraordinary violence in the Philippines”. Critical Asian Studies 53(3). 380–411.

Schulte, William (BJ). 2022. “Environmental Litigation Trends in Southeast Asia”. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. 20 May.

Week 7: Migrant workers’ rights

Bal, Charanpal S. and Gerard, Kelly. 2017. “ASEAN’s governance of migrant worker rights.” Third World Quarterly 39(4). 799-819.

Ford, Michele and Piper, Nicola. 2007. “Southern sites of female agency: informal regimes and female migrant labour resistance in East and Southeast Asia”. In John M. Hobson and Leonard Seabrooke (eds). Everyday Politics of the World Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 63-80.

Nurdin, Endang and Lumbanrau, Raja. 2023. 'Why did you torture me?': A domestic worker's fight for justice”. BBC Indonesia. 1 March.

Week 8: Transitional justice

Hughes, Rachel. 2016. “Victims’ Rights, Victim Collectives and Utopic Disruption at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.” Australian Journal of Human Rights 22(2). 143-166.

Hughes, Rachel. 2019. “Showing Now: the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.” In Lia Kent, Joanne Wallis and Claire Cronin (eds). Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Asia and the Pacific. Canberra: ANU Press. 107-126.

McCargo, Duncan. 2015. "Transitional Justice and Its Discontents". Journal of Democracy 26(2). 5-20.

Kent, Lia. 2014. “Narratives of Suffering and Endurance: Coercive Sexual Relationships, Truth Commissions and Possibilities for Gender Justice in Timor Leste.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 8(2). 289-313.

Week 9: The 1965 violence in Indonesia – “The Look of Silence” film screening

Cribb, Robert. 2001. “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965–1966.” Journal of Genocide Research 3(2). 219–39.

McGregor, Katharine and Ken Setiawan. 2019. “Shifting from International to “Indonesian” Justice Measures: Two Decades of Addressing Past Human Rights Violations.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 49(5). 837-861.

Melvin, Jess. 2018. “There's now proof that Soeharto orchestrated the 1965 killings”, Indonesia at Melbourne. 26 June.

Week 10: Rights mobilisation

Chua, Lynette J., Engel, David M. and Liu, Sida. 2023. “Legal Mobilization.” In The Asian Law and Society Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 183–226.

Cheesman, Nick and Kyaw Min San 2014, “Not Just Defending; Advocating for Law in Myanmar”. Wisconsin International Law Journal 31(3). 702-733.

Gomez, James and Ramcharan, Robin. 2012. “The Protection of Human Rights in Southeast Asia, Improving the Effectiveness of Civil Society”. Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law 2. 27-43

Week 11:Guest lecture from a prominent human rights defender

Guest lecture from a prominent human rights defender: perhaps Ricky Gunawan, Drugs Policy, Global Programs Open Society Foundations (former anti-death penalty lawyer in Indonesia), or Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Readings TBA.

Week 12: Sexuality

Required readings:

Weiss, Meredith. 2021. “Building Solidarity on the Margins: Seeking SOGIE Rights in ASEAN”. Journal of Human Rights 20(2). 194-210.

Chua, Lynette J. 2012. “Pragmatic Resistance, Law, and Social Movements in Authoritarian States: The Case of Gay Collective Action in Singapore”. Law & Society Review 46. 713-748.

Gunia, Amy. 2022. “Singapore's Half-Hearted Concession to LGBT Rights May Make Real Change More Difficult”. Time. 23 August.

Solomon, Feliz. 2022. “Compromise Lies Behind Singapore’s New Approach to LGBT Rights”. The Wall Street Journal. 2 September.

Recommended readings:

tan, beng hui. 2020. “The LGBT Quandary in New Malaysia”. Australian Journal of Asian Law 20(1). 197-212.

Week 13: Press freedom

Tapsell, Ross. 2021. “Divide and rule: Populist crackdowns and media elites in the Philippines”. Journalism 23(10). 2192-2207.

Coronel, Sheila S. 2019. “Press Freedom in the Philippines”. In Tina Burrett and Jeffrey Kingston (eds). Press Freedom in Contemporary Asia. London: Routledge. 214-229.

Harsono, Andreas. 2023. “The Rocky Road to Press Freedom in South East Asia”. Human Rights Watch. 22 February.

Week 14: Businessand human rights

Ramasastry, Anita. 2015. “Corporate Social Responsibility Versus Business and Human Rights: Bridging the Gap Between Responsibility and Accountability.” Journal of Human Rights 14(2). 237-59.

Mohan, Mahdev. 2015. ‘Human Rights Risks amidst the “Gold-Rush”: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam’. In Mahdev Mohan and Cynthia Morel. Business and Human Rights in Southeast Asia Risk and the Regulatory Turn. London: Routledge. 133–60.

UN OHCHR. 2011. “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”.

Course materials will be in English and knowledge of a Southeast Asian language is not required.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written examination
Type of assessment details
Free written assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

- In the semester where the course takes place: Free written assignment

- In subsequent semesters: Free written assignment

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


Course number
7,5 ECTS
Programme level
Full Degree Master

1 semester

Department of Political Science, Study Council
Contracting department
  • Department of Political Science
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Social Sciences
Course Coordinator
  • Timothy Sinclair Mann   (3-766b6f42706b6375306d7730666d)
Saved on the 28-06-2023

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