This course explores the history of the idea of human rights from the ancients to the present day. We will treat human rights not as an abstract philosophical concept, but as policies that emerge in specific historical contexts – from 15th-century Spanish debates about whether Native Americans were rights-bearing subjects to 21st-century controversies about organ trafficking.
We will move through the histories of colonial expansion and contraction, war, revolution, migration, and transformations of global capital that have shaped thought and practice about human rights. We will survey the many sites and actors that have participated in human rights debates, from courts to grassroots organizations, and conflicts that have emerged over humanitarian interventions. Finally, we will consider how modern states have acted both as protectors and as violators of human rights.
The course may speak especially to students who plan to work (or are already working) in the field of human rights, and wish to be more historically informed about the nature of this work. But more broadly, it is designed to help us understand the relationship between ethics and historical studies, and the ways in which particular narratives about rights can have profound – even life and death – consequences.
Key readings include Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Susam Slyomovics's How To Accept German Reparations, and Maurizio Albahari's Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World's Deadliest Border. We will also watch several films about human rights, including Solovki Power, Long Day's Journey into Night: South Africa's Search for Reconciliation, Dirty Pretty Things, and My Neighbor, My Killer.
The class will be based on discussions, and each student will produce a 10-12 page research paper.