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School of Law

Human rights in the developing world

Course Code:
Unit value:
Taught in:
Full Year

In the first term, after a brief critical appraisal of the development of international human rights law since 1945, we consider possible justifications for offering a special course on human rights in the developing world, including an examination of the term ‘developing world’. 

We explore the ‘right to development’ in the context of increasing international economic regulation and consider the impact of globalisation, including an examination of the role of multi-national corporations in relation to both the abuse and promotion of human rights.

In the second term we explore the possibilities for human agency against the background of the structural constraints identified in the first term. We consider in particular the role of law and lawyers in social change. We ask whether rights ‘work’ and under what conditions, with particular reference to case studies from Africa and Asia on issues such as health, housing, and violence against women.

Finally, we take a special look at the debates surrounding the marginalisation of Africa and the possibilities for human agency for change.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

Students will learn to master a set of analytical and conceptual tools for analysing the relationship between law and economic performance for economies in the European and non-European worlds from the colonial period through the era of globalisation.

Scope and syllabus

Term 1
  1. Introduction
  2. The Cold War Human rights regime: the age of exhortation? General background on the development of the international human rights regime. One narrative contends that the international human rights regime was congenitally defective, or was at least severely disabled by the onset of the Cold War so soon after its 'birth' at the end of the World War II. a competing narrative argues for recognition that much essential work, particularly in terms of standard-setting, was achieved during that era, and that the advancement of human rights should not be viewed primarily in terms of 'enforcement'.
  3. Human Rights after Cold War: the age of enforcement? the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War were widely expected to deliver a 'peace dividend' and trigger significant changes in the capacity and willingness of the international community to protect and promote human rights. How were the dominant themes of discourse altered, and what were the implications for international human rights theory and practice? How much has really changed since the end of the Cold War? How did the practice of collective humanitarian intervention arise, and what is its relation to human rights? What is mean by the 'responsibility to protect', and how effective has this doctrine been in practice?
  4. Why the 'developing world'? Part I: Development and human rights. Do the special circumstances of development require special norms or a special inflection of existing human rights norms? The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights seems to support this approach. And what is the status of the right to development?
  5. Why the 'developing world'? Part II: Two views from the South. The use of the terms ' developing world' or 'third world' can be patronizing and derogatory. But is it necessarily or invariably so/ who should decide on the use of such technology? The two articles below are by scholars from Africa and Latin America. Is the identification of a distinctive ' developing world' history, identity and experience possible and can it have positive value for countries which self-identify as members of the developing or third world/ what if any, particular value can it have for scholars of international law and human rights activists in relation to the development of international law?
  6. Why the 'developing world'? Part III: Asian values and African human rights. Is there an internal normative distinction? are there norms intrinsic to developing world traditions which justify the separate treatment of the developing world from a human rights perspective? Are there Asian or African values?
  7. Why the 'developing world'? Part IV: Zones of safety, zones of violence. Is there an empirical distinction? Do the Developed and developing worlds constitute separate zones of safety and violence, of civilisation and barbarism, which make human rights protection more exigent in the case of the latter?
  8. Why the 'developing world'? Part V: Colonialism and self-determination.
  9. Human Rights and Globalisation I: International Economic Law, economic Right and Production. What becomes of the right to development in the era of increasing international economic regulation and the role of the international financial institutions (IFIs)? How is one to approach the problem of international equality from a human rights perspective in a globalising world?
  10.  Human Rights and Globalisation II: Multinational Enterprises. How does globalisation of production, and the role of TNCs affect the protection of economic and social rights? In what ways have these developments been argued to facilitate, in what ways to impede protection(or directly to threaten violation)?
  11. Human Rights and Globalisation III:Democratic Governance and Civil and Political rights. How should globalisation be defined? What implications does it have for the practice and development of international human rights? How do we imagine the promotion and protection ['enforcement'] of human rights in a globalised world, where the significance of sovereignty is reduced? How are we to evaluate the emerging norm of democratic governance?
  1. Introduction to second term: structural constrains and human agency. After the historical background and theoretical debates of TERM1, which highlight what might be called the 'structural constrains' of the globalising world in which we all live, we turn in TERM2 to an examination of the possibilities for human agency which may nevertheless remain open. how far does the law - and the language of the rights in particular - provide opportunities for the promotion of social change?Can law reform and litigation affect deeply ingrained attitudes and prejudices? Is it an effective and fair way of achieving change? How useful id the language of economic and social rights in poor countries? After an introductory week, we turn to case studies drawn from our own research interests and those of some of our colleagues.
  2. Health and Human Rights: law reform and litigation in South Africa
  3. Housing, Education: law reform and litigation in South Africa
  4. Violence against women: law reform and litigation in South Africa
  5. Indian sex workers and the law
  6. Human Rights in the People's Republic of China
  7. Litigating against Shell in the Niger Delta
  8. Africa: Pessimism or optimism? Two views from African Human Rights activists on the way ahead
  9. Review

Method of assessment

Assessment weighting: 50% unseen examination,  40% coursework (one essay of 4000 words) and 10% in-class presentation. Coursework may be resubmitted.

Suggested reading

Principal text:

Steiner H. and Alston P.: International Human Rights in context, (2007), 3rd ed. Oxford