Dustin Yellen, Migration in Four Parts

Human Rights: a Critical Introduction

Instructor: Rebecca Sanders
Community Matters
2110 Saint Michael Street
Cincinnati, OH 45204

Human rights are frequently invoked in political discourse, but how do we define and act on these abstract concepts? For some, human rights are natural, universal, and self-evident; for others they are socially constructed and subject to ongoing contestation and reinterpretation. Human rights are often thought to provide minimal protections against state oppression, conceptualized as “negative rights” or “political and civil rights,” but they also underwrite claims for greater social justice and equality in the form of “positive rights” or “social and economic rights.” If human rights belong supposedly to all peoples, why are they sometimes limited, in theory and practice, by race, gender, questions of state sovereignty, international governance, and more? How should we understand the role of human rights in the modern world?

In this course, we will trace the development of human rights in liberal states and international law and grapple with the promise and limits of the international human rights project for advancing human freedom. We will read classic and contemporary documents such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the US Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights alongside alternative declarations and critiques that highlight how rights rhetoric may, as abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, amount to “hollow mockery.” With the help of feminist scholars such as Catharine MacKinnon, we will consider “are women human?” given the gap between state commitments and the reality of state practice, a gap that extends to many issues in addition to gender. Thinking with political theorists such as Hannah Arendt, we will explore if there is a meaningful “right to have rights” beyond the confines of citizenship and what the plight of refugees and migrants tells us about the internationalism of rights. Finally, we consider if human rights are, as Samuel Moyn argues, “not enough” in the face of global poverty and whether ascendant nationalism and imperialism harbinger what Stephen Hopgood terms the “end times of human rights.” Given these challenges, can we avoid what’s been called human rights “idolatry” in favor of a human rights politics that meaningfully improves the human condition?

Course Schedule

Sunday, 1:30-4:30pm
April 28 — May 19, 2019
4 weeks


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