11.164 | Fall 2015 | Undergraduate, Graduate

Human Rights: At Home and Abroad


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours  /session

Course Overview

This course provides a rigorous and critical introduction to the foundation, structure and operation of the international human rights movement, as it has evolved through the years and as it impacts the United States. 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, with an emphasis on the United States, and through transnational mechanisms such as the United Nations. The course explores the often contentious relationship between the U.S. and international human rights movement, including arguments about American exceptionalism, and the current human rights issues raised by mass movements from criminal justice, policing, mass incarceration and economic and social justice. 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.

This course is open to all students at MIT, both graduate and undergraduate. The course will adopt a double focus—both theory and practice, and at home and abroad—to break down the usual binaries which characterize human rights debates. 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, social movements, and international and governmental officials argue about human rights and their implementation. Practitioners from the world of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) / social movements and international organizations may also guest lecture.


There are no prerequisites for the course, but students are expected to have interest in international and public affairs.

Course Materials

The course will be based on readings from three main texts (see below) and several articles and items, which will be placed on course website or are available on the net. For more background in international law students may refer to the recommended text (see below). Class format will be both lecture and discussion.

Required Texts

Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory & Practice. 3rd ed. Cornell University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780801477706. [Preview with Google Books]

Hurwitz, Deena, Margaret Satherthwaite, and Douglas Ford. Human Rights Advocacy Stories. Foundation Press, 2008. ISBN: 9781599411996.

Rajagopal, Balakrishnan. International Law from Below. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN: 9780521016711. [Preview with Google Books]

Background in International Law–

Janis, Mark. International Law. 6th ed. Aspen Publishers, 2012. ISBN: 9781454813682.


Regular and active class participation 20%
Weekly class blog 40%
Final paper 40%

Class Participation

Readings are compulsory before the relevant class and students’ discussion will be assessed. Readings marked ‘recommended’ should also be read in advance as much as possible in order to get the maximum out of this class. Attendance is compulsory.