Inventing Human Rights, 1776-2001

Of all intellectual and ideological concepts in the modern world, few are as contested and powerful as human rights. At their most influential, concerns for the protection of human rights have been used to justify international conflict and widespread military intervention in order to save the lives of thousands of people. Yet human rights critics argue that they are a form of cultural imperialism that limits the sovereignty of local populations. How has an ethical and moral concern for individual lives come to be so divisive? Why after years of supporting the establishment of international human rights law do many governments now pledge to scrap their own human rights acts?

This module will examine the history of human rights, putting their development into a broad historical context. It will chart the development of rights discourses from the pre-modern era through to the present, assessing the influence that the enlightenment, imperialism and war have had on their construction. It will offer students the opportunity to explore differing aspects of the history of human rights. An example topics covered includes: