Contemporary Politics of Human Rights

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Chetan Bhatt STC.S107


This course is compulsory on the MSc in Human Rights and Politics. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

This course has a limited number of places (it is controlled access). Students who have this course as a core course are guaranteed a place. Other than for students for whom the course is a core course, places are allocated based on a written statement, with priority given to taught postgraduate students in the Sociology Department. As demand is typically high, this may mean that not all students who apply will be able to get a place on this course.

Course content

During a period of unprecedented change in social, political, technological and cultural spheres, key human rights institutions and ideas have come under sustained criticism or attack. After the Second World War, an international consensus emerged in which the legitimacy of a framework of universal rights and related institutions was generally accepted. This consensus can no longer be assumed, whether within or outside formally liberal-democratic states.  Human rights, as a powerful exemplar of political liberalism, have been criticised for their institutionalised, procedural and legalistic nature. They have come under sustained attack from authoritarian and populist states and movements. This interdisciplinary course examines many of the sharp tensions and contradictions in the contemporary politics of human rights. This includes the relevance of humanist foundations today, tensions in the practice of human rights, the populist, far-right and left-wing attacks on human rights, the rise of new identity politics and its human rights consequences, and the impact of social media on human rights. The course aims to critically examine the problems of - as well as the problems facing - contemporary human rights. Key topics that are often considered settled within much human rights thinking and practice, including the politics of identity, the politics of care, sameness and difference, racism, culture and religion, gender and sex, humanitarianism and war, will be examined and debated critically, as will emerging areas linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movements. The course considers how we might rethink human rights and humanism for a new period of political change.


This course is delivered through a combination of lectures, online materials and seminars totalling a minimum of 40 hours across MT and LT.

There will be a Reading Week in Week 6 of both Michaelmas Term and Lent Term.

Formative coursework

Students should submit two formative essays, 1500 words each, one in Week 10 of Michaelmas Term and one in Week 10 of Lent Term.

Indicative reading

Baxi, Upendra (2012), The Future of Human Rights (Third Edition), Oxford India.

Moses, Dirk, Duranti, Marco and Burke, Roland eds. (2020), Decolonization, Self-Determination, and the Rise of Global Human Rights Politics, Cambridge University Press.

Fields, Karen and Fields, Barbara (2012), Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Verso.

Donnelly, Jack (2013), Universal human rights in theory and practice, Cornell University Press

Combahee River Collective (1983), ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement’, in Barbara Smith (ed.), Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table / Women of Color Press. A

Deng, Francis, An-Na’im, Abdullahi, Ghai, Yash and Baxi, Upendra (2009), Human Rights, Southern Voices, Cambridge University Press.

Boersma, David (2011), Philosophy of human rights: theory and practice, Westview.

Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. University of California Press.

Mamdani, M. 2009. Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror. HSRC Press


Essay (50%, 3500 words) in the LT Week 1.
Essay (50%, 3500 words) in the ST Week 1.

An electronic copy of the assessed essay, to be uploaded to Moodle, no later than 4.00pm on the submission day.

Attendance at all classes and submission of all set coursework is required.

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Sociology

Total students 2020/21: 56

Average class size 2020/21: 23

Controlled access 2020/21: Yes

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills