Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Course Description

This course provides a rigorous and critical introduction to the foundation, structure and operation of the international human rights movement. The course introduces students to the key theoretical debates in the field including the historical origin and character of the modern idea of human rights, the debate between universality and cultural relativism, between civil and human rights, between individual and community, and the historically contentious relationship between the West and the Rest in matters of sovereignty and human rights, drawing on real life examples from current affairs.

The course also covers leading policy issues in which human rights are implicated such as the contentious relationship between human rights and economic development/globalization, issues raised by poverty and economic-social and cultural rights, democracy promotion as a human rights agenda, women's rights, ethnic violence, and the tension between security and human rights. It discusses ways in which human rights are sought to be realized in practice, both within countries and through transnational mechanisms such as the UN. The course materials will draw from many disciplines including law, philosophy, international relations, sociology and political science and will also rely upon the publications of leading international agencies.

The course will adopt a double focus – both theory and practice. That is to say, we will address the theoretical fundamentals of human rights while emphasizing the practical aspects of human rights work, the purpose being to enable students to understand the ways in which human rights scholars, activists, and international and governmental officials argue about human rights and their implementation.


This course is open to all students at MIT, both graduate and undergraduate. There are no prerequisites for the course, but students are expected to have interest in international and public affairs.


Class format will be both lecture and discussion. The course will be based on readings from two main texts (see below) and several articles and items. For more background in international law students may refer to the recommended text (see below).

Required Texts

Buy at Amazon Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. ISBN: 9780801487767.

Buy at Amazon Rajagopal, Balakrishnan. International Law from Below. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN: 9780521016711.

Recommended Text

Buy at Amazon Janis, Mark. An Introduction to International Law. Aspen Publishers. 2003, ISBN: 9780735526495.


Grading for this class will be based on the following:

Regular and active class participation 30%
Two short papers 30%
Final paper 40%