This course will examine through lectures and discussions with practitioners and scholars a range of questions: What are human rights? Where did they originate and when? Who retains them, and when are we obliged to defend them? Though what kinds of institutions, practices, and frameworks have they been advocated and affirmed. And which are the human rights that we take to be self-evident? The rights to speak and worship freely? To legal process? To shelter and nourishment? Do our human rights include high-speed internet access, as one Scandinavian country has recently proposed has recently proposed? Can human rights ever be global in scope? Or is the idea of universal human rights a delusion or, worse, a manifestation of cultural chauvinism?
History will not answer these questions for us, but historical understanding can help us answer them for ourselves. “The History and Practice of Human Rights,” examines the historical development of human rights to the present day, focusing on, but not confined to, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the idiom of human rights is frequently legalistic, we will ask how the idea of human rights might depend upon humanistic modes of comprehension and communication such as film, literature, music, and the arts: media that can stretch the horizons of elastic human empathy.
More than a history of origins, however, this course will contemplate the relationships between human rights and other crucial themes in the history of the modern era, including revolution, imperialism, racism and genocide. Why, we must ask, did an era of recurrent and catastrophic political violence produce a language of universal human rights? Looking forward, can the proponents of human rights offer a redemptive alternative to twentieth century’s catastrophes, or are human rights themselves another false utopia? As a history of international and global themes and an examination of specific practices and organizations, this course will ask students to make comparisons across space and time and to reflect upon the evolution of human rights in international thought and action. As a "discovery course" it will introduce students to about a dozen UC professors and members of the community engaged with human rights broadly conceived. Be prepared to participate in section and lecture discussions.