Human rights in history

(Class leader: Paul Betts)

Interest in human rights has exploded in recent years, as human rights has emerged as one of the most prominent international trends following the end of the Cold War. The early 1990s sparked renewed debate about the role and mission of the United Nations as a global mediating force in matters of war and peace, and human rights became for many a new yardstick with which to assess post-Cold War international politics and proper state formation. Yet this idea of what Hannah Arendt has called "the right to have rights" is a relatively recent historical development. This course endeavours to trace the origins of human rights as a modern political ideology from the French Revolution to the present day.

It will explore the extent to which the idea of human rights underwent radical transformation over the 19th and especially 20th centuries, entangled as it was in shifting notions of civilization, empire, sovereignty, decolonization, minority protections and international justice. It will also investigate to what extent human rights arose as a direct response to the legacy of man-made mass death associated with World War I and World War II, and in particular to the Third Reich's genocidal politics and destruction of unprotected civilians.

What is more, the course will also pay particular attention to how these new norms of justice were globalized over the course of the second half of the century. Just as non-Europeanists interpreted Wilson's notion of self-determination in broad ways to suit various emancipatory causes beyond Europe in the interwar years, rights activists from India, South Africa, the United States and later Eastern Europe seized on human rights after 1945 as something that went far beyond simply internationalizing American New Deal policies. From this perspective, this course aims to locate the history of human rights at the very heart of the broader story of modern moral politics and changing international perceptions of the relationship between law and citizenship, war and social justice.

Preparatory reading                     Sessions outline                    Bibliography