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  3. Reimagining Human Rights Law

Reimagining Human Rights Law (LAWS90049)

Graduate courseworkPoints: 12.5On Campus (Parkville)

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Year of offer2019
Subject levelGraduate coursework
Subject codeLAWS90049
Availability(Quotas apply)
FeesSubject EFTSL, Level, Discipline & Census Date

This subject considers ways of reimagining the international human rights regime, which is under attack from many quarters. It is said to be ineffectual, hegemonic and ill-equipped for a world that is very different from that of the era in which it was devised, and reliant for its implementation upon outmoded forms of regulation. Another set of critiques focuses on groups at the margins of the international human rights system, including women, indigenous peoples and minority sexual groups, whose human rights are often breached.

This subject reviews these critiques and examines their explanatory force. It considers ways in which the international human rights system can be reconceived to be more effective, drawing on anthropological and socio-legal scholarship. It will focus, first, on the turn to quantification in the human rights field, especially the use of indicators, and whether this is likely to increase protection of human rights. Second, the course will discuss attempts to respond to ‘outsider’ critiques of the human rights system, including the drafting of specialised treaties and instruments. Third, the course will consider the relationship between the formal mechanisms of the human rights system and the mobilisation of human rights ideas and values by social movements and non-governmental organisation. It will examine the social and cultural processes by which international norms and laws become translated into local situations. A unique feature of this course is that it combines the perspectives of international law and legal anthropology in its approach to human rights.

Principal topics include:

  • A review of the key mechanisms used to promote the treaty obligations that states have accepted and how these operate
  • An examination of some of the major criticisms that have recently been directed at international human rights mechanisms by governments and other key actors
  • An overview of the question of evaluating impact in this field, including consideration of the work of scholars who have sought to measure the effect of ratification of human rights instruments
  • The development of an ‘indicator culture’ in the human rights field
  • An understanding of the role that quantification plays in defining human rights and fostering compliance through increasing accountability
  • A review of recent sustained critiques of the human rights regime by scholars such as Stephen Hopgood, Samuel Moyn, Eric Posner, Harri Englund and others
  • A discussion of Third World, feminist and queer critiques of the international human rights system
  • Analysis of specialised treaties and instruments responding to these critiques, including CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), the Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence and the Yogjakarta Principles
  • An introduction to anthropological approaches to the international human rights system
  • Examination of human rights in practice, focusing on the way these ideas are mobilised to deal with local issues such as gender violence and indigenous rights.

Intended learning outcomes

A student who has successfully completed this subject will:

  • Have a sophisticated appreciation of the challenges that the international human rights regime faces
  • Be equipped to engage in a probing and constructive manner with the key criticisms and the challenges that they represent
  • Understand how to make effective use of some of the principal international treaty regimes in the human rights field
  • Be able to analyse the dynamics of applying international normative regimes within domestic contexts
  • Have an understanding of anthropological approaches to the international human rights system
  • Understand how human rights laws work in practice and in a variety of social contexts
  • Develop a socio-legal analysis of law as a source of authoritative norms grounded in a global consensus and an understanding of compliance as based on social pressure, shaming, and civil society mobilisation.

Last updated: 23 July 2019