The Politics of Human Rights International Studies/Political Science 317

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The Politics of Human Rights

International Studies/Political Science 317

Spring 2015

Tuesdays/Thursdays 11-12:15 pm, 2080 Grainger
Professor Scott Straus

Office Hours: Thursdays 1-3 pm, 224 North Hall

Teaching Assistants

Nick Barnes:

Dacil Keo:
* Please see Appendix on the last page for the TA Section Schedule.

Human rights constitute a central and inescapable ideal in the contemporary world. Governments around the globe routinely commit themselves to upholding human rights, and many states have signed landmark international human rights agreements. The promotion of human rights is, moreover, a fundamental principle of the United Nations and thus of the “international community,” such as it exists. This course is an introduction to the central concepts, laws, and debates in the field of international human rights. In the first half of the course, we will examine fundamental questions such as: What are human rights? What are the philosophical, religious, and historical foundations of human rights? What are the main international human rights agreements? What are some problems with those agreements? What are the main international institutions that handle human rights? Are human rights universal? How are human rights enforced? And what role do non-governmental organizations play in this field? In the second half of the course, we will focus on two central and complex human rights issues. First, we will examine the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities. We will examine the variety of policy tools available to domestic and international actors to mitigate or stop mass violations of human rights. As part of our study, we will explore several cases, including Iraq, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Libya, and Syria. Second, we will examine various approaches to accounting for past human rights abuses, including international courts, foreign courts, domestic courts, truth commissions, and “traditional” forms of justice. Again, we will focus on particular cases, such as the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, and South Africa—among others. A central proposition throughout the course is that human rights cannot be separated from politics. Indeed, we cannot understand either why human rights abuses happen or why international actors respond to human rights abuses in the way they do without examining the political contexts in which the abuses and policies take place.


Section attendance and participation: 20%

Mid-term exam: 25%

Paper (8-10 pages): 30%

Final exam: 25%
Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, trans. by Alex Gilly (New York: Ecco, 2014).
Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
The books have been ordered and should be available for purchase at the University Bookstore or you may purchase them through an online source. There will additionally be a number of articles available on-line at the course’s learn@UW site. Please note that I have provided electronic copies of a majority of the course content in order to contain course costs, but students should feel free to make hard copies of articles.
Paper Assignment

The paper assignment is to write an 8-10 page analytical, research-based essay on a topic of interest to you and relating to the themes of the course. The paper should show independent research. The paper should be materially different from any paper handed in for credit for another class. Below are some possible suggested topics. I encourage you to consult with your TA prior to completing the research and writing.

The topic of your paper is open as to country and subject. That openness is both an opportunity (you get to decide what to study) and a challenge (you have to choose one topic among many). In my experience, I would say that two of the major challenges of an open research paper are: 1) asking a research question and asking the right question and 2) developing an argument. Presumably, there are a number of human rights issues that are or could be of interest to you. For the paper, you need to move beyond choosing an interesting topic; you need to be analytical, and being analytical usually means having a central question that drives the research and writing.
General Suggestions

My general suggestions are two-fold: first, focus on a narrow and researchable topic. You will have a much easier time researching and writing the paper if you are able to concentrate on a fairly specific issue. Second, following the points above, frame your paper as a question. Framing your paper as a question will help you develop a thesis. For example, if you are interested in human rights violations in Burma (Myanmar), you might ask: what are the historical causes of human rights abuses in that country? Are there periods when violations were greater or lesser, and why? What international efforts have been used against Myanmar and which have been most effective? What role have non-governmental organizations played in drawing attention to and changing the human rights environment Myanmar? Have human rights treaties and norms shaped the way in which the government treats citizens? And so forth.

Grading Criteria

We will employ three principal criteria for grading your papers: quality of argument, quality of writing, and quality of research. To receive an ‘A,’ you must excel on all three dimensions. First, quality of argument: your paper must have a thesis, and the evidence that you supply in your paper must support your thesis. In general, strong organization and a logical flow of ideas will strengthen the quality of your argument. Second, quality of writing: I cannot stress enough how important good writing is for whatever you decide to do in life. Now is a good time to start working on your writing skills. Your paper should have no spelling or grammatical mistakes. You should make good word choices. You should not have any run-on sentences. You should use commas when commas are appropriate and semi-colons when semi-colons are appropriate. Every sentence should make sense. Every paragraph should be coherent. You should be concise. Avoid clichés. Avoid colloquialisms: (i.e. “The world should step up to the plate and do something about Darfur”). Avoid mixed metaphors: (i.e. “The world should step up to the plate and drown Sudan’s government.”) The best strategies for improving the quality of your writing are proof-reading and reading your paper aloud. Reread your paper several times before you hand in the final version. Reading aloud often is a good way to determine if sentences sound right. Third, quality of research: I do not have a set number of sources. The basic idea is that you need to do sufficient independent research beyond the readings assigned in the class. That could mean reading four amazing books, reading two books and six articles, or reading 100 newspaper articles. Your research sources and quantity will depend on your topic, your question, and the available resources.

Suggested Possible Topics

You have a huge number of topics from which to choose. You could focus on a major historical event, a contemporary issue, a specific human rights issue in a specific country, the history of a particular convention, and so forth. Below I list some suggested topics. You do not need to pursue these topics, and again you still need to frame your research paper as a question. But nonetheless here are some topics that students have done in the past or that would easily lend themselves to papers:

1) Debates over torture and detainee rights in the context of terrorism

You could focus on Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, recent U.S. legislation on the treatment of detainees, etc.

2) Darfur, Syria, and Libya

Whether what is happening is genocide, the international impasse at the U.N., what might work as an intervention strategy, roots of the violence, U.S. domestic activism on Darfur, etc.

3) International human rights trials

Cambodia, Iraq, Guatemala, the ICC, any case from Rwanda, any case from the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, the debate of peace versus justice in Uganda, the truth commission in Guatemala, the case against Augusto Pinochet, etc.

4) Compare death penalty debates in the U.S. versus Europe.

5) Examine a specific human rights issue in Venezuela, Russia, Nepal, Colombia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Morocco, Uruguay, China, this country, Pakistan, Angola, Congo, Indonesia, Haiti, Egypt, or any other country.

6) Female Genital Mutilation, the Muslim veil, and universal rights.

7) Human rights abuses committed by United Nations peacekeepers.

8) Do human rights treaties make a difference? Choose a case and show how and whether the human rights regime has fostered change.
9) Critical debates within a particular human rights organization.

10) Are socio-economic rights “rights”? Is access to life-saving HIV suppression drugs a human right?

11) The debate over ratification of a particular treaty.

12) The American Bar Association’s history and relationship to international human rights.

13) Some issue having to do with Eleanor Roosevelt.

14) Human rights issues that the UDHR missed.

15) United Nations reform, specifically dealing with the Human Rights Commission (now Council).

16) The problems or advantages of an “exceptionalism” framework for analyzing U.S. human rights policies.

17) LGBT rights as human rights.

18) The arrogance of global human rights

19) Debates about the history of human rights

20) The human rights tensions between free speech protections and whether speech can be harmful.

21) Anything else!
Again, the topics I list here are suggestions. You do not need to do any one of these. If you are having trouble finding a topic, I also encourage you to read a quality newspaper on a daily basis. The newspapers are FULL of interesting human rights stories these days. Or set up a daily google news search for “human rights” and see what you get.

Below is an incomplete list of possible sources. There are unquestionably many more potential sources, but these are useful places to start.

Human Rights Instruments (Laws, Declarations, Statements, etc) (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) (Minnesota Human Rights Library)

Country Reports (State Department) (International Crisis Group--excellent country reports and analysis, though not always on human rights per se) (Human Rights Watch) (Amnesty International)

Human Rights Organizations (Human Rights First) (Physicians for Human Rights)

Regional Human Rights Bodies and Regional Organizations (European Court of Human Rights) (Organization of American States) (African Union homepage) (ASEAN homepage)

Genocide Prevention (Center for Genocide Prevention—US Holocaust Museum)

Enough Project

Academic Journals (abbreviated list)

Human Rights Quarterly

Journal of Human Rights

Harvard Human Rights Journal

Yale Human Rights and Development Journal

Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights

American Journal of International Law

Journal of Genocide Research

Genocide Studies and Prevention
I. Introduction
January 20: Introduction and Course Overview
January 22: Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights
Michael Ignatieff, “Human Rights as Politics,” Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 3-52.
Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 1-8.
II. The Foundations of Modern International Human Rights
January 27: Religious and Political Origins
Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 9-27.
Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (New York: Norton and Company, 2007), pp. 15-34.
Michael Perry, “Is the Idea of Human Rights Ineliminably Religious?” The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 11-43.
January 29: Human Rights between the “Revolutions”
Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), pp. 37-69.
Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 1-11
III. Landmark International Human Rights Documents
February 3: The United Nations Charter, the UDHR, and the ICCPR

Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2002), pp. 3-34 and 173-191.

February 5: ICESCR, other “Core” International Human Rights Treaties, and UN Human Rights Institutions
Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2002), pp. 193-219.
Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 28-68.
RECOMMENDED: Available at

International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families (ICRMW)

IV. Problems with International Human Rights Instruments: Enforcement, Compliance, Justiciability, Exceptionalism, and Politics
February 10: Treaties, Compliance, and International Law
Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 69-122.
Emilie Hafner-Burton and Kiyoteru Tsutsui, “Human Rights in a Globalizing World: The Paradox of Empty Promises,” American Journal of Sociology 110: 5 (2005), pp. 1373-1411.
Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink, “The Socialization of International Human Rights Norms into Domestic Practices: Introduction,” in Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, eds., The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 1-39.
Oona Hathaway, “The Promise and Limits of the International Law of Torture,” in Sanford Levinson, ed., Torture: A Collection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 199-212.
Neil Englehart and Melissa Miller, “The CEDAW Effect: International Law’s Impact on Women’s Rights,” The Journal of Human Rights 13:1 (2014), pp. 22-47.
February 12: NO CLASS
February 17: “Positive Rights,” Enforceability, and Justiciability
Kenneth Roth, “Defending Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Practical Issues Faced by an International Human Rights Organization,” Human Rights Quarterly 26:1 (February 2004), pp. 63-73.
Leonard S. Rubenstein, “How International Human Rights Organizations Can Advance Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: A Response to Kenneth Roth,” Human Rights Quarterly 26:4 (November 2004), pp. 845-865.
February 19: U.S. Exceptionalism, Torture, and the War on Terror
Andrew Moravcsik, “The Paradox of U.S. Human Rights Policy,” in Michael Ignatieff, ed., American Exceptionalism and Human Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 147-197.
United States Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program. “Findings and Conclusions,” 19 pp.
““If the US tortures, why can’t we do it?” – UN expert says moral high ground must be recovered,” December 11, 2014

Dick Cheney on Meet the Press,
John Yoo, War by Other Means: An Insider’s Account of the War on Terror, pp. vii-xii.
VI. Regional Human Rights Bodies
February 24: Europe
Shirley Williams, “Human Rights in Europe,” in Samantha Power and Graham Allison, eds., Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 77-109.
Start: Alexandra Huneeus, “International Criminal Law by Other Means: The Quasi-Criminal Jurisdiction of the Human Rights Courts,” The American Journal of International Law 107 (2013), pp. 1-44.

European Convention on Human Rights (

February 26: The Americas and Africa
Finish Huneeus.
Claudio Grossman, “The Velasquez Rodriguez Case: The Development of the Inter-American Human Rights System,” in John Noyes, Laura Dickinson, and Mark Janis, eds., International Law Stories (St Paul: Foundation Press, 2007), Chapter 3.
VII. The Question of Universality
March 3: Universal Human Rights, “Cultural Relativism,” and the Importance of Localization
Michael Ignatieff, “Human Rights as Idolatry,” Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, pp. 53-98.
Steve Stern and Scott Straus, “Embracing Paradox: Human Rights in the Global Age,” in Steve Stern and Scott Straus, eds., The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and Its Discontents (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), Introduction.
March 5: Universality and the Female Circumcision Debate
Alison Slack, “Female Circumcision: A Critical Appraisal,” Human Rights Quarterly 10:4 (November 1988), pp. 437-486 (skim).
VII. International Human Rights Activism


March 10: Human Rights Organizations
Kenneth Roth, “Human Rights Organizations: A New Force for Social Change,” in Samantha Power and Graham Allison, eds., Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp., pp. 225-248.
Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), Preface and Chapter 4.

Peter Slezkine, “From Helsinki to Human Rights Watch: How an American Cold War Monitoring Group Became an International Human Rights Institution,” Humanity 5:3 (2014), 345-370.

March 12: Transnational Advocacy Networks and “The Boomerang Effect”
Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 1-38.


MARCH 17: In-Class, Mid-Term Examination
VIII. International Action to Prevent and Stop Mass Human Rights Violations
March 19: Overview: Key Debates and Approaches in Atrocity Prevention

Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers, pp. 1-52.

Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 123-136.
Scott Straus, Fundamentals of Atrocity Prevention (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2015), Chapters 5-9.
March 24: Iraq (1991) and Somalia
Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers, pp. 139-207.
March 26: Rwanda


Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers, pp. 208-241.
April 7: Bosnia and Kosovo
Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers, pp. 242-310.
April 9: Darfur and Libya
Eric Reeves, A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (Toronto: Key Press, 2007), pp. 1-8, 13-18.
David Rieff, “Moral Blindness: The Case against Troops for Darfur,” The New Republic 234: 21/22 (2006), pp. 13-16.
Robert Pape, “When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention,” International Security 37:1 (2012), pp. 41-80.
April 14: Syria and the Future of Atrocity Prevention
Gareth Evans and Ramesh Thakur, “Humanitarian Intervention and Responsibility to Protect,” International Security 37:4 (2013), pp. 199-214.
Read country-year reports on Syria in

ICISS, The Responsibility to Protect: The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty online at

IX. Justice and Accounting for the Past


April 16: Overview: Key Debates and Approaches in Atrocity Prevention
Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, trans. by Alex Gilly (New York: Ecco, 2014), pp. 1-48.
Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), Chapter Six.
April 21: The Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials


Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, trans. by Alex Gilly (New York: Ecco, 2014), pp. 49-100.


April 23: The Ad Hoc International Criminal Tribunals

Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, trans. by Alex Gilly (New York: Ecco, 2014), pp. 101-158.
April 28: The International Criminal Court
Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, trans. by Alex Gilly (New York: Ecco, 2014), pp. 159-246.

The Rome Statute:

April 30: The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia
Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, trans. by Alex Gilly (New York: Ecco, 2014), pp. 247-322.
May 5: Community-Based Justice: Gacaca in Rwanda
Bert Ingalaere, “The Gacaca Courts in Rwanda: Contradictory Hybridity,”
Phil Clark, The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chapter 1.
May 7: Truth Commissions, a Justice Balance?, and Conclusion
Martha Minow, “The Hope for Healing: What Can Truth Commissions Do?” in Robert Rotberg and Dennis Thompson, eds., Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 235-260.
Tricia Olsen, Leigh Payne, and Andrew Reiter, Transitional Justice in Balance: Comparing Efficacy, Weighing Processes (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2019), Conclusion.
May 11: Final Exam, 5:05-7:05 pm, Location to be Announced

Appendix 1:

TA Section Schedule






8:50 – 9:40

305: Nick

9:55 – 10:45

302: Dacil

11:00 – 11:50

306: Dacil

12:05 – 12:55

1:20 – 2:10

307: Nick

2:25 – 3:15

303: Dacil

304: Nick

3:30 – 4:20

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