SOAS University of London

Department of Politics and International Studies

International Politics of Human Rights

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Taught in:
Term 2

The course focuses on the contestations in the history, institutions and politics of the global human rights regime, in general terms and in relation to specific rights issues, and considers its future prospects. We begin with a look at the contested history of human rights and ask why arguments about their origins are so persistent and the implications of dominant accounts of origins for contemporary politics of human rights. We then look at the sociology of human rights, using this approach to ask where the politics of human rights are located, and how and with what consequences the human rights ‘movement’ reproduces its moral authority. We then look at both international human rights norms and the institutions that embody them, including the relationship between rights, humanitarianism and international justice. Then, in the long middle section of the course, we examine a series of core rights issues in more depth, ranging from economic and social rights – including what relation, if any, human rights have to neoliberalism; women’s rights, children’s rights, and gender-based violence; LGBT* rights; states' routine suspension of rights in the name of security ('emergencies') - the new ‘normal’ of the ‘Global War on Terror' that has intensified amid the global pandemic; and the struggle for rights in exile (including, but not limited to, asylum) and, relatedly, the inexorable rise of the carceral state. In the final two weeks, we consider the debates over and prospects for rights in a ‘post-Western’ future (if that is truly what is emerging), and what emergent forms of global solidarity might come to replace them.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of this module a student will be able to:

  • Critical understanding of major developments and issues in contemporary world politics with reference to key rights domains
  • Critical understanding of the normative divides informing global contestations in key rights domains, including over ‘human rights’
  • Critical knowledge of key global policy frameworks impacting rights protections, including globalisation, neoliberalism, ‘countering violent extremism’, etc.
  • Strong independent research skills, writing skills and policy analysis skills in the context of module assessments.


1.5 hour lecture per week

1 hour tutorial per week

Scope and syllabus

  1. Introduction: Foundations & origins - Rights history and philosophy.
  2. The sociology of human rights.
  3. International norms and institutions.
  4. Economic & social rights, including the right to development.
  5. Women’s rights, children’s rights, & gender-based violence.
  6. LGBT* (LGBT*Q/LGBT*QI/LGBT*QIA) rights.
  7. Human rights and states of emergency.
  8. Rights in Exile and the Carceral state.
  9. Human rights in a post-Western world?
  10. Conclusion: Futures - If not human rights, then what?

Method of assessment

The module is assessed by a single 5,000 word essay, to be submitted in the first week of Term 3. This essay is 100% of the course assessment. There is no exam.

A key learning outcome of the module is for students to develop their research skills in the area of international normative politics with particular reference to human rights. Specifically, you will independently research a topic and, in consultation with the module teachers, develop a research question on any aspect of human rights politics that interests you, and write the assessed essay on this.

Suggested reading

  • Aliverti, Ana. (2014) 'Enlisting the public in the policing of immigration.' British Journal of Criminology 55(2): 215-230.
  • Bob, Clifford. (2012) The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Burke, Roland. (2011). Decolonization and the evolution of international human rights. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Corredor, Elizabeth (2019) ‘Unpacking Gender Ideology and the Global Right’s Anti-Gender Countermovement.’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 44(3): 613-638.
  • Featherstone, David. (2012) Solidarity: Hidden histories and geographies of internationalism. Zed Books.
  • Hoover, Joseph, and Marta Iñiguez De Heredia. (2011) ‘Philosophers, activists, and radicals: a story of human rights and other scandals.’ Human Rights Review 12(2): 191-220.
  • Hopgood, Stephen. (2006) Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International. Cornell University Press.
  • Mazower, Mark. (2009) No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations. Princeton University Press.
  • Mills, Charles W. (2017) Black rights/white wrongs: The critique of racial liberalism. Oxford University Press
  • Moyn, Samuel. (2010) The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Harvard University Press.
  • Neier, Aryeh. (2003) Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights. Public Affairs.
  • Sikkink, Kathryn. (2011) The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics. WW Norton & Co.
  • Weiss, Meredith L., and Michael J. Bosia, eds. (2013) Global homophobia: States, movements, and the politics of oppression. University of Illinois Press.
  • Zuboff, Shoshana. (2019) The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. Profile Books.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules