The Power and Fragility of Human Rights in Modern Society

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Course Information
Political Science
Terms offered: 
Fall, Spring
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 

Prior intermediate coursework in International Relations, Politics, Law, or Cultural Studies


Human rights do not only evoke a set of indispensable liberal freedoms but they also imply an agenda for making the world a better place, a place in which, after a long history of struggles, the dignity of each human being will enjoy secure international protection. Writing at the beginning of the 21st century and looking at the dense structure of legal and political standards one could, indeed, emphasize the power and transformative capacity of human rights in today’s world society. At the same time, however, changes and crises in the global economy, renewed geopolitical conflicts and power shifts in the international system as well as the rise of populist and xenophobic movements in Western countries seem to highlight the fragility, contingency and uncertain future of the global human rights regime. This course will introduce students to selected issues, problems and recent developments in the field of human rights. It focuses especially (but not exclusively) on European perspectives, debates, actors and institutions.

The course is divided into four parts. Part I traces the historical development of human rights from ideas and declarations to the emergence of social movements and, finally, to the creation of regional and global human rights regimes. The basic question in this part is whether this evolutionary process can be interpreted as a successful case of value generalization in modern world society. Part II introduces the European system of human rights protection. This system is characterized by a heterarchical relationship between the European Court of Human Rights and domestic courts. In addition, central topics related to the question of freedom of religion, to the status of refugees and migrants as well as to the potential conflict between EU law and UN law in the case of counter-terrorism measures will be discussed. Part III focuses on selected issues such as the creation of new human rights standards, the problem of implementation, the prosecution of human rights violations, as well as the question of political legitimacy in the case of conflicting understandings of justice in different cultural contexts. Part IV analyzes the power and fragility of human rights in today’s world society. Recent transformations in the international system and the global economy highlight the potential as well as the limits of human rights understood as a unifying idea, movement or structure of global governance.