The International Human Rights Movement: Assessing its History, Work and Current Challenges

Instructors: Claret Vargas and James Cavallero

In the space of sixty five years, human rights advocates have transformed a marginal utopian ideal into a central element of global discourse, if not practice.  This course examines the actors and organizations behind this remarkable development as well as the vast challenges faced by advocates.  What are the main challenges and dilemmas facing those engaged in rights promotion and defense? What are the origins of the human rights movement and where is it headed?  What does it mean to be a human rights activist? In what circumstances is human rights advocacy most and least effective?  Can advocacy be counterproductive?  The course will examine these questions through critical readings, class discussion and consideration of case studies of rights advocacy.


During class sessions, students will be introduced to human rights advocacy through readings and class discussion.  The readings and seminar sessions expose students to some of the practical manifestations of the main debates and dilemmas within the human rights movement.  These include several of the ethical and strategic issues that arise in the course of doing fact-finding and advocacy and balancing the often differing agendas of the western international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their counterparts in the (frequently non-western) developing world.  


Writing Assignments:  Writing assignments will account for 50% of students’ grades.

Students will be required to write:

Short reflection papers (1 page, single-spaced, or 500 word thought pieces) on four (4) class discussions and accompanying readings.  You must submit a reflection paper on the Mutua/Kennedy/Rieff readings by Monday, July 7, at 10:00 a.m.   You may choose the other three topics for your reflection papers.  

One (1)  team-produced fact-finding report, based on a fictional situation, as well as One (1)  2-page reflection paper due after class discussion on the fact-finding reports.  

One 4-page reflection paper on one of the major themes of the class, will be due on the last day of class.


Reflection papers are due by 11:00 a.m. on the Monday before the Tuesday afternoon session.  Late papers will be docked at least one point (on a 1-10 scale).  Reflection papers should be posted to the mailbox on the Course website in Courseworks. 


Attendance and Participation:

Attendance, as well as active and informed participation on the part of every student is necessary for the success of this class.  This is why these two elements account for 50% of your grade.


I.    Evaluating the Human Rights Movement

Class 1

June 24.  Introduction: Why be a human rights activist?  Is this a movement or a top-down, elite-driven western imposition?  Is it effective? For whom and on behalf of whom does the human rights movement work?  Who is the constituency?  To whom is it accountable?


David Kennedy, The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem? 15 Harvard Human Rights Journal 101 (2002);


Class 2

June 26.  We continue discussing the themes of class 1.


Makau wa Mutua, Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights, 42 Harvard International Law Journal 201 (2001);

David Rieff, The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights, New York Times Magazine, August 8, 1999.

Binyavanga Wainaina,  How to Write About Africa, Granta 92095 (Winter 2005)


Class 3

July 1.  Transnational Human Rights Advocacy: Problems and Opportunities.  


Balakrishnan Rajagopal.  Introduction: Encountering Ambivalence, in The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local, 273 (Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry eds.,  Cambridge University Press 2007) 

John G. Dale, Transnational Legal Conflict Between Peasants and Corporations in Burma: Human Rights and Discursive Ambivalence Under the US Alien Tort Claims Act, in The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local, 285 (Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry eds.,  Cambridge University Press 2007) 


Class 4

July 3

The Growth of a Movement: From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Amnesty International to the surge of national human rights groups; Latin America and the growth of the international human rights movement.


W. Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1998): Introduction & Chapter 7 (“‘To Light a Candle: Amnesty International and the ‘Prisoners of Conscience’”);

Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Advocacy Networks in International Politics, Chapter 3 (“Human Rights Advocacy Networks in Latin America”);

Class 5

July 8. 

Aryeh Neier, Taking Liberties (2003), Chapter 9 (“Defeating Reagan”), Chapter 10 (“Americas Watch: A Testing by Fire”) and “Summing Up.”

Cecilia Medina Quiroga, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: Reflections on a Joint Venture.  12(4) Human Rights Quarterly 439 (1990).

Tom Farer, the Rise of the Inter-American Human Rights Regime: No Longer a Unicorn, Not Yet an Ox, 19(3) Human Rights Quarterly 510 (1997).

Teams for next class’s activity will be assigned


II.    Fact-Finding and Documentation of Rights Abuses

Class 6

July 10.  In-class film viewing: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon


Richard A. Wilson, “Representing Human Rights Violations: Social Contexts and Subjectivities,”  in Richard A. Wilson, ed., Human Rights Culture & Context: Anthropological Perspectives (1997)

Americas Watch (now Human Rights Watch), Guatemala: Human Rights Escalate as Elections Near, November 8, 1990, (excerpts)

Louise Reid Ritchie, “Getting the Measure of a Soul on Deadline,” Author’s submission to a 1997 National Writers' Workshop.

Team prompts distributed in class, reports due at midnight, July 10.


Class 7:  **** FRIDAY SESSION****

July 11*** (FRIDAY SESSION).  

The problems of fact-finding.  Continuing discussions from previous class readings and film.




III.    A Critical Look at Litigation as a Strategy for Rights Promotion

Class 8

July 15.  How should advocates engage international fora? How important is the development of jurisprudence? What goals should be foremost for advocates? Are there elements inherent in international litigation that make it more or less effective than domestic litigation for social change?


Rosenberg, Gerald N. Courting Disaster: Looking for Change in All the Wrong Places. 54 Drake L. Rev. 2005-2006

Laurence R. Helfer, Overlegalizing Human Rights: International Relations Theory and the Commonwealth Caribbean Backlash Against Human Rights Regimes, 102 Colum. L. Rev. (2002) (excerpts)


Class 9

July 17.  Review notes on class discussion.  We will continue discussing the themes covered in Class 10.


Case study documents on Damião Ximenes Lopes v. Brazil, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Louis Henkin, Sarah H. Cleveland, Laurence R. Helfer, Gerald L. Neuman, Diane F. Orentlicher, Human Rights (Second Edition, 2009), pp. 589 – 597

“Order of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of May 2, 2008, Case of Ximenes Lopes v. Brasil (Monitoring Compliance with Judgment)”

James L. Cavallaro & Stephanie Erin Brewer, Reevaluating Regional Human Rights Litigation in the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the Inter-American Court, 102 American J. of Int’l L. 768 (2008)


IV.    Human Rights & Conflict Resolution

Class 10

July 22.  Human Rights & Conflict Resolution: Pray the Devil Back to Hell 

In this session, after viewing the film, we will discuss why advocates must learn to use not only traditional human rights advocacy tools (such as writing advocacy reports and litigating cases before domestic and international judicial forums), but also conflict management strategies for understanding and responding to conflict.

Class 11

July 24.  We will continue discussing the themes of Class 12, and will incorporate into the discussion the readings assigned for today.


Anonymous, Human Rights in Peace Negotiations, 18 Human Rts. Q. 249-58 (1996)

Gaer, Felice. UN-Anonymous: Reflections on Human Rights in Peace Negotiations, 19.1 Human Rts. Q. 1 (1997)

Byron Bland, Brenna Marea Powell and Lee Ross, Barriers to Dispute Resolution: Reflections on Peacemaking and Relationships between Adversaries, in Understanding Social Action, Promoting Human Rights (2012)


V.  The United States and Human Rights

Class 12

July 29.  The U.S. Role in the Origins of the Modern Human Rights Movement: In this session we will briefly go back in history to look at the impact of US civil society organizations in the development of the human rights movement, and why human rights today still struggle to resonate to many domestic audiences.



Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Address to Congress, January 6, 1941 (“Four Freedoms Speech”) (excerpt)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State of the Union Speech, January 11, 1944 (“The Second Bill of Rights”) (excerpt)

Carol Anderson, “A ‘Hollow Mockery’: African Americans, White Supremacy, and the Development of Human Rights in the United States,” from Soohoo et al., eds., BHRH, Vol. 1 (2008), pp. 75-94

Carol Anderson, Bleached Souls and Red Negroes: The NAACP and Black Communists in the Early Cold War, 1948-1952, from Plummer, Brenda Gayle, ed., Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs 1945-1988 (2007)

Civil Rights Congress, “We charge genocide; the historic petition to the United Nations for relief from a crime of the United States Government against the Negro people” (1951), pp. 1-12; 26-28; 58-60

Fujii v. State, 217 P.2d 481 (Cal. App. 2d 1950), rehearing denied 218 P.2d 596 (Cal. App. 2d 1950), reversed 242 P.2d 617 (1952)

Louis Henkin, U.S. Ratification and Human Rights Conventions: The Ghost of Senator Bricker, 98 AMER. J. INT’T L. 341 (1995)


Class 13

July 31:  U.S. Exceptionalism and Foreign Policy: Promoting Human Rights Abroad

Consider the ‘other’ side of the exceptionalism paradox: U.S. promotion of human rights abroad. What are the rationales offered? How can—or should—the unilateralist U.S. position be justified? How has the tension between U.S. foreign policy on human rights and its positions at home affected the development of the U.S. human rights movement? Compare the U.S. government’s posture and advocates’ response to U.S. foreign policy post-9/11 to previous controversial policies, e.g., Cold War interventions in the Americas or Vietnam? Should human rights groups limit their advocacy to exclude issues such as aggression and global military policy? How have human rights advocates leveraged U.S. positions on human rights abroad to push U.S. authorities to accept the idea that human rights norms should apply at home and to U.S. forces abroad? How have the priorities of U.S. based human rights organizations influenced, if at all, the defense of human rights globally? Social justice globally?


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam,” speech, April, 1967 (excerpt)

James Peck, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Coopted Human Rights (2010), pp. 45-84; 121-129; 225-229

“Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper: International Humanitarian Law Issues in a Potential War in Iraq." Human Rights Watch

Roth, Ken. “War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention.”Human Rights Watch, Jan. 2004

Burnham, G., S. Doocy, E. Dzeng, L. Riyadh, L. Roberts. “The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study, 2002-2006.” Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University School of Medicine.


VI.  Representations of Suffering: Ethics, Narrative Strategies and Practice

Class 14.  Ethics and Visual Advocacy

August 5.  The Emerging Visual Culture and Visual Advocacy Ethics: This class will engage with critiques of visual culture and apply these to the practice of video advocacy in human rights, with a focus on the ethics of video advocacy.


Stanley Cohen, “Images of Suffering.” States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2001), excerpt.

Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977), excerpt.

Jina Moore, “Ethical or Exploitative?  Stories, Advocacy and Suffering.” Beyond Kony 2012: Atrocity, Awareness and Activism in the Internet Age (2012).

Sam Gregory, “Cameras Everywhere: Ubiquitous Video Documentation of Human Rights, New Forms of Video Advocacy, and Considerations of Safety, Security, Dignity and Consent,” Journal of Human Rights Practice (2010)


Class 15.  Narrative Strategies

August 7.  Storytelling for Action: This class covers narrative structure, the elements of audio-visual storytelling and the basic techniques of video production.


Katerina Cizek, Storytelling for Advocacy: Conceptualization and Preparation, Video for Change: Guide for Advocacy and Activism (eds. Gregory, Caldwell, Avni, Harding) (2005)

Joanne Duchesne, Excerpts from “Video Production” Filming a Story” Video for Change: Guide for Advocacy and Activism (eds. Gregory, Caldwell, Avni, Harding) (2005)


August 12:  NO CLASS  (work on your final reflection paper!)


Class 16  Poetics and Ethics

August 14:  Representing Suffering and Building Empathy: the Poetics of Human Rights Advocacy


Elaine Scarry: The Body in Pain (selections)

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (selections)

Jacobo Timmerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (selections)

Julio Cortázar, Newspaper Clippings.


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