Human Rights Syllabus

SIS 519-003
American University, Fall 2002
Wed.  11:20- 2:00
Professor Julie Mertus

Office:  SIS Annex 13
Office phone:  202-885-2215


Course Description

This course has been specifically designed to address the needs and interests of students of international studies and, in particular, those engaged in the study of peace and conflict resolution, international law, international politics and international development.

·        The course begins by examining the philosophical and political bases for the international human rights movement, probing the ongoing debate over universality, culture and human rights.

·        Second, the course introduces the main United Nations and regional systems (with an emphasis on Latin America) for human rights protection and promotion and, in so doing, provides a tool for analyzing conflict and various forms of interventions attempting to promote peace and justice.

·        Third, students become acquainted with the methodology of human rights fact-finding, with attention given to learning and practicing interview techniques and planning investigations.

·        Finally, the course challenges students to think as human rights advocates in their examination of specific foreign policy choices and NGO strategies designed to advance human rights, including: the use of military force to promote human rights; the development of international criminal courts, truth commissions, and other attempts at transitional justice; the intersection of humanitarian and human rights law, with an introduction to war crimes, crimes against humanity and the specific crime of genocide; advocacy strategies concerning globalization and transnational corporations; and the human rights dimensions of terrorism.

The class will be highly participatory and will encourage diversity of opinion and respect for differing views.  To promote active learning, we will use a series of online exercises, in-class simulations and other exercises.

Course Goals

This course seeks to help students to:
·        develop analytical skills to question and appraise human rights policies and practices at the international and national levels;
·        enhance understanding of fact-finding methodology and develop interview skills;
·        gain substantive knowledge of the international law and policy of human rights and consider prevailing trends in the human rights field and of the challenge and contribution of critics;
·        perceive improvements, discern ambiguities and identify contradictions in the human rights movement;
·        draw useful conclusions about the roles of various state and nonstate actors in the identification of rights and in their promotion and enforcement; and
·        identify potential roles for oneself in the promotion of human rights.

Assigned Readings

A small reading packet will be distributed in class (on Truth Commissions; Human Rights Investigations and Human Rights and Terrorism).  In addition, the following books are required for the course:

Columbia University Human Rights Program, 25 Essential Human Rights Documents.  (hereafter “Red Book”)

David Forsythe, Human Rights in International Relations (New York: Cambridge, 2000).

Julie Mertus, American University Human Rights Reader (2002) (customized text prepared with Foreign Affairs).

The following books are suggested:

Dermot Groome, The Handbook of Human Rights Investigations (Northborough, MA: Human Rights Press, 2001) (phone: 508-393-4503).

Richard Falk, Human Rights Horizons: The Pursuit of Justice in a Globalizing World (New York: Routledge, 2000).

Priscilla Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Students are also urged to read the Washington Post or New York Times.

Requirements and Grading

The requirements of this course have been designed to promote active learning. Thus, instead of one or two major tests or papers, you will be asked to complete several smaller assignments throughout the term: 

·        The exam (20%) tests your understanding of the main philosophical debates on the basis and understanding of human rights and on the main elements of human rights systems and mechanisms.

·        The group exercise (20%) requires you to work in a small group at preparing a list of interview questions for a mock interview with a torture victim and conducting the mock interview.  A group paper setting forth your strategy for the interview and the interview questions to be asked is due at the beginning of the class when you conduct the mock interview.  An individual reflection paper that utilizes the assigned readings for the class is due at the beginning of the class after you conduct the mock interview.

·        Exercises: (30%) provides you with an opportunity to explore the topics through interactive exercises based on real-life cases.  While you should prepare all exercises as assigned, you need hand in only three of them (your choice).  The specific requirements of the exercises vary (some require you to write a decision, take a side, make an advocacy strategy, etc.), however each should be a minimum of 4 pages and should refer to course materials.  Exercise papers are to be handed in to my research assistant no later than the beginning of the class for which they are assigned.

·        Reflective final paper: (30%) asks you to write an original essay on “The Future of Human Rights:  Challenges and Opportunities Ahead.”  This paper should make use of course readings, utilize a proper citation format and bibliography, and demonstrate original thought and good paper-writing skills (i.e., present a thesis in a topic paragraph, explore the thesis in an organized and rigorous manner, and end with a conclusion).  This paper, which should be a solid 8-10 pages in length, is due at the beginning of the last class.

All papers are due on time.  Papers will be marked down by one gradation for each day late.  Papers not submitted in the beginning of class as required (and instead handed in at the end of class, placed in a mailbox. or emailed) will be marked down by ½ grade.

In addition to the above requirements, class attendance and consistent class preparation and participation is required.  If your grade is borderline, grades may be raised one-half grade for excellent participation (defined by quality and not just quantity) and attendance (defined as missing no more than one class). On the other hand, grades may be lowered by one-half grade for students who miss three classes.  Students who miss more than three classes will need to meet with me to explore whether they should receive any credit for the course and, if so, what additional work will be required to receive credit.


Course Syllabus


(Sept. 5)



·        What are human rights?  Be prepared to give a one-sentence definition and defend it.

·        How can human rights be framed as a “common concern” or as “human dignity”?  What are the implications of these and other possible conceptions of human rights?  Who benefits from human rights?  What is the impact on philosophy, politics, specific practices of state and nonstate actors?

·        What are the possibilities and limitations for human rights as a means of pursuing global justice?

·        How do human rights norms develop?  When do we know they exist?

·        How do you recognize a human right?  Can you list specific attributes of human rights?  Are human rights different from “civil rights”?

·        How are we to understand enforcement of human rights under international law?  Are there other, “extra-legal” ways in which human rights norms are enforced?

·        With specific reference to Forsythe and Schlesinger, discuss the role played by human rights in international relation in the United States.  From your past study of the field of IR (if any), can you point to any dilemmas for human rights in IR?

·        How does human rights figure into US foreign policy?  How should it?  What about the foreign policy of other countries?

·        Does the US generally abide by international human rights law?  Do other states?

·        What are the implications of characterizing human rights policy as “pragmatic”?


Human Rights in International Relations,  Forsythe, pp. 3-50

Schlesinger, Arthur.  “Human Rights and the American Tradition.”  Foreign Affairs (1978) (reader).

Beitz, Charles.  “Human Rights as Common Concern.”  American Political Science Review.  (June 2001) (reader).

Issac, Jeffrey.  “A New Guarantee on Earth: Hannah Arendt on Human Dignity and the Politics of Human Rights.”  American Political Science Review. (March 1996) (reader).

Robert Axelrod.  “An Evolutionary Theory of Norms.”  American Political Science Review.  (Dec. 1986) (reader).

Garten, Jeffrey.  “The Need for Pragmatism.”  Foreign Policy (winter 1997) (reader).

Neier, Aryeh.  “The New Double Standard.” Foreign Policy (winter 1997) (reader).

(Sept. 12)

·        Why do we have a human rights rather than a human duties movement? What alternative language could have been used to describe the values and goals of the human rights movement?  To what extent is rights language restrictive?

·        Do any particular characteristics or substantive content necessarily attach to the language of rights?  Or are rights empty receptacles open to many different types of values and ideas?

·        Is the language of rights and the content of rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) universal?  Or are the values that are incorporated in the UDHR particular to given cultures or states?  Are there ways of bridging the differences among cultures or states so that they are bound to recognize the same rights?

·        How can we understand human rights in a cross-cultural context?

·        What validity is there to the argument that human rights are a western imposition? Are there ideological arguments that favor upholding human rights?  Are there ideological arguments that lead to violations of human rights?

·        How can human rights advocates avoid being called “cultural imperialists”?

·        What is the debate within Islamic communities on human rights? (Make specific reference to the authors below and/or other authors from previous studies).  How do human rights hold currency in Islamic traditions?

·        How should we weigh individual women's rights against the rights of a disadvantaged minority group? How do we do this in an Islamic society?

·        Can or should we have universal women's rights? Are human rights only the rights of individuals? Can we preserve both cultural traditions and individual rights? Is it possible to compromise when faced with such a rights dilemma?


Shah Bano: Muslim Women’s Rights


Ahmed An-Na’im, Abdullahi.  “A New Islamic Politics: Faith and Human Rights in the Middle East.”  Foreign Affairs (May/June 1996) (reader).

Franck, Thomas. “Are Human Rights Universal?” Foreign Affairs (January/Feb. 1997) (reader).

Sakakibara, Eisuke.  “The End of Progressivism: A Search for New Goals.”  Foreign Affairs (March/April 1995) (reader).

Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).


(Sept. 19)

UN Charter and UDHR:

·        How does the UN Charter address human rights and in what provisions? Are all human rights included?

·        What is the meaning of the clause concerning domestic jurisdiction?

·        What correlation is there between the concepts of sovereignty, non-interference and the international protection of human rights? What are the implications of there concepts for international law and policy?

·        Compare the Charter’s human rights provisions with those of the UDHR. Are there any potential conflicts?

·        What are the categories of human rights that are set out in the Universal Declaration? What is the status of a declaration under international law? Is the UDHR legally binding on states?  Under what theories?


·        Compare the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  How are they the same?  How do they differ?  Can you explain the differences?

·        What is the time frame for implementation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?

·        Replying only on the preambles and texts of the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR, how would you identify the reasons for those instruments, their justification in moral and political thought, and the moral and political traditions from which they derive? Why do you think the documents did not provide a lengthy justification?

·        Do you see in any of these documents any departure from ‘universal’ premises, rights, and related obligations of states? Are there any concessions in any provisions to different cultures or political systems?

·        Are civil and political rights of the individual the most basic and fundamental of all human rights? Is it desirable to establish a hierarchy of human rights?

·        Compare a "political" right with an "economic" right. What linkages can be drawn between violations of economic rights (e.g., the right to work) and violations of civil rights (e.g., the right to be secure from torture)? What UN organs and machinery are in place for promoting and protecting human rights?

·        How do you react to the following ways of characterizing civil and political rights and economic and social rights:

Civil and Political Rights          Economic and Social Rights
law politics, policy
rights    needs, wants, political claims
binding   hortatory, at best directive
no resource excuse for failure resource contingent
immediate full application progressive application
determinate open-textured
judicial remedies not-judicial non-enforceable
negative, hands-off positive, interventionist

·        What are the differences between the “derogation" and the "limitation clauses" in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)? Are they desirable?

UN Organs:

·        What is the role of the main and subsidiary organs of the UN in protecting human rights?

·        How does the UN investigate violations of human rights?

·        What are the mechanisms available under the ECOSOC resolution 1234 for inducing a government to improve its human rights record? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

·        How may an individual lodge a complaint under the ECOSOC resolution 1503? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this mechanism?


Forsythe, pp. 55-80

Handouts on Human Rights Step-by-Step

Overview of Human Rights Law

Groome, Chapter 1  (suggested)

Human Rights Step-by-Step (handout)

Class 5: STRATEGIES AND TOOLS FOR APPLICATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS   NORMS:  Part Two – Regional (focus on Latin America)
(Sept. 26)



Regional Systems:

·        Compare the regional human rights conventions.  Make a list of some of the similarities and differences, both in the substantive rights named and in the mechanisms established for their promotion.

·        What are some of the social, political, cultural, historical differences among the regions that may explain the different challenges for the realization of human rights?

·        Does the regional approach to human rights offer good opportunities for the effective enforcement of human rights?

·        To what extent does a regional approach offer advantages over a UN System or “global” approach?  Make a list of the benefits and limitations of a regional approach.

·        Suppose that an individual lives in a Latin American state that is a party to one of the regional systems is injured by arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial and with harsh treatment.  You are a staff member of a human rights NGO in the individual’s state.  Advise the individual of the possible processes. 



Forsythe, pp. 110-136.

Lutz, Ellen, and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Human Rights Law and Practice in Latin America,”  International Organization (summer 2000)(reader).

African [Banjul] Charter on Human Rights (Red Book).

American Convention on Human Rights (Red Book).

European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Red Book).

European Social Charter (Red Book).

(Oct. 3)


·        Make a list of the various strategies nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) employ in their human rights work.

·        At what level do NGOs operate (e.g., local, regional, international)?  What factors do they weigh in determining which methods to employ at various levels? 

·        To what extent may NGOs participate in the work of UN bodies?

·        How do governments and international organizations put the reports and critiques of NGOs?

·        What are the dilemmas and challenges of NGO action in Third World countries?

·        Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “International NGOs are but another method for imposing Western concepts upon the Third World.  Their agendas are dictated by external assumptions, and they ignore or suppress vital issues like exploitation by their home states in the Third World and their own state’s responsibility for human rights violations abroad.”

·        How should human rights NGOs be judged?  By the criteria of objectivity and accuracy?  Does the choice of such criteria beg the question as to the “proper” focus of the non-governmental side of the human rights movement?

·        Are NGOs accountable?  Is this a problem?

·        What is the concept of “global civil society”?  What contribution does it make to the promotion of human rights?  Is there a dark side to global civil society?

·        Can local human rights NGOs be encouraged and supported by outside funders (including governments) without losing some of the essential characteristics of human rights NGOs?

·        How do the internal politics of NGOs influence their human rights work?

·        Consider some of the problems of investigative missions of NGOs.  What are they supposed to do on these missions?  Are they apolitically objective? Can they be?  Should they be?

·        What assessment can reasonably be made of the contribution of NGOs to human rights?



Forsythe, pp. 163-189.

Mertus, Julie.  “Human Rights and the Promise of Transnational Civil Society”. In Burns H. Weston and Stephen P. Marks, The Future of Human Rights. Transaction Publishers: Ardsley, NY. 1999.  pp. 433-456 (handout).

Wapner, Paul.  ISA Paper on NGOs and Accountability (handout).

Heidenrich, John G.  “The Gulf War: How Many Iraqis Died?” Foreign Policy, no. 90 (Spring 1993) (reader).

(Oct. 10)


·        What are the various ways of “intervening” to promote human rights in another country?  List both coercive and noncoercive methods.

·        Is aid conditionality an effective way of promoting human rights?

·        Is there a “right to humanitarian intervention”?  If yes, where does it come from and what is its scope?  Be prepared to define the term “humanitarian intervention.”

·        Was the NATO intervention in Kosovo legal under international human rights and humanitarian law?  Was the decision to intervene legally and/or morally justified?  Are there human rights grounds for the intervention?  Was the means of intervention legal and/or moral?

·        Would U.S. national interests be served by humanitarian intervention in Kosovo? Could international human rights be advanced by a military response? Did U.S. and international law grant the President authority to use armed force without prior approval of Congress and the U.N. Security Council?

·        Does “human rights promotion” advance or endanger the “national interests” of the United States?


A Just War?  President Clinton’s Response to Kosovo     


Ingram, James.  “The Politics of Human Suffering.”  National Interest.  (summer 1994) (reader).

Glennon, Michael.  “The New Interventionism.”  Foreign Affairs.  (May/June 1999) (reader).

Nye, Joseph.  “Redefining the National Interest.”  Foreign Affairs.  (July/August 1999).

Weiss, Thomas.  “Triage: Humanitarian Intervention in a New Era.”  World Policy Journal.  (spring 1994) (reader).

Lancaster, Carol.  “Redesigning Foreign Aid.”  Foreign Affairs (March/April 2002) (reader).

Mertus, Julie.  “Beyond Borders: The Human Rights Imperative for Intervention in Kosovo”. Human Rights Review, Vol. 1, no. 2 (January-March 2000), pp. 78-87 (handout).

Abramowitz, “The President, The Congress and Use of Force: Legal and Political Considerations in Authorizing the Use of Force Against International Terrorism”  Harvard International Law Journal (winter 2002) (handout).


(Oct. 17)

            ***  GROUP STRATEGY PAPERS DUE ***


Human Rights Investigation, Groome, Chapter 2

Documenting Physical Injuries, Groome, Chapter 3

Interviewing Witnesses, Groome, Chapter 7

Identifying Suspects, Groome, Chapter 8


(Oct. 24)



International Criminal Law:

·        What are differences between international crimes and international offenses?

·        What are crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity?

·        Do genocide, apartheid, slavery, racial discrimination, torture, and terrorism constitute international crimes or international offenses?  Where do you find support for finding them human rights violations?

·        What is the role of customary international law in international criminal law and human rights?

·        Do we have universal international criminal law?  Why or why not? Can there be universality in the substance of international criminal law but not the procedure?

International Courts:

·        Do you support the creation of an international criminal court?  What are the arguments for and against the establishment of such courts?  Draw from the specific arguments of the authors below in explaining the debate over the ICC.

·        The U.S. government has opposed the ICC as presently established.  Can you explain why? What does Jesse Helms argue?  Is it consistent with the U.S.’s image of itself as a “promoter of human rights around the world”?

·        What are the main provisions of the statute for the ICC?  How does the statute for the ICC compare with that for Rwanda?

·        Why were the tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia created?  Do they represent something “new”?  What precedent do they draw upon?

·        Do you support the creation of ad hoc criminal tribunals, such as the ones for Rwanda and Kosovo?  What are the arguments for and against?

·        What are some of the human rights issues implicated with the creation of such courts?  (Think about victims, by-standers and the accused.)

·        Why at the close of the millennium do we see increased interest in international criminal courts?  Is there a human rights justification?  A political justification?

·        Can you predict the future with respect to utilization of international criminal courts?  What would it take for the U.S. to embrace universal application of international criminal law?


The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda:  The Akayesu Verdict (Rape Trial)


Forsythe, pp. 84-108

Roht-Arriazia.  “Institutions of International Justice.” Journal of International Affairs (spring 1999)(reader).

Bolton, John R.  “Courting Danger: What’s Wrong With the International Criminal Court.” The National Interest, no. 54 (Winter 1998/99), pp. 60-71(reader).

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court:

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda:


(Oct. 31)

·        What is the relationship between truth commissions and human rights?

·        What are the arguments in support of the establishment of truth commissions?

·        Is there an ideal truth commission?  Explain.  Make a list of “things to do” when setting up a truth commission and another list of “things to avoid.”

·        What are some of the lessons learned from truth commissions?  When do they “work”?  (And what does it mean to “work?”)

·        Can you explain the increased interest in truth commissions in the post-Cold War era?

·        Why do some commentators call truth commissions “more-or-less truth commissions”?  Why do some commentators see truth commissions as an illustration of the tension between justice and peace?




(Nov. 7)

·        How have human rights law and humanitarian law “grown up” as two separate fields?  )

·        To what extent is humanitarian law and human rights law distinct?  To what extent are the lines blurred between the fields?

·        How do norms of humanitarian law play a role in combating immunity?  How does this promote human rights?

·        What human rights concerns are implicated by forced migration and refugee flows? 

·        How might humanitarian assistance contribute to the existence of human rights abuses?

·        What is the crime of genocide? Some commentators have called genocide the ultimate human rights violation.  Do you agree?

·        What are “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes” Who can be held responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes?  When and under what conditions?


The ICJ Considers Genocide: Bosnia vs. Yugoslavia


Helton, Arthur. “Rescuing the Refugees.”  Foreign Affairs (March/ April 2002) (reader).

Barber, Ben.  “Feeding Refugees, or War?  The Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid.”  Foreign Affairs  (July/August 1997) (reader).

Meron, Theodor. “The Humanization of Humanitarian Law.”  American Journal of International Law (March/April 1998) (reader).

Reiff, David.  “The Humanitarian Trip.”  World Policy Journal  (winter 1995) (reader).

Convention on the Elimination of Genocide  (Red Book).

1951 Refugee Convention (Red Book).


(Nov. 14)

·         What are the particular challenges for human rights advocates in our era marked by globalization?

·        To what extent can social justice be pursued through the world economy?

·        Has labor become more interested in international affairs generally?  In human rights?  If so, why?

·        To what extent are transnational corporations responsible for human rights violations?

·        To what extent can transnational corporations be held responsible for human rights violations?  What strategies and tactics would you suggest?

·        Is Unocal is liable for the human rights violations of its government joint venture partner?

·        Should the international and U.S. efforts to isolate the military regime be continued?   What are the implications for human rights?


Doe v. Unocal: Forced Labor and Corporate Liability


Human Rights a Means of Pursuing Global Justice

Falk, pp. 13-93 (suggested).

Forsythe, pp. 191-211.

Mazur, Jay.  “Labor’s New Internationalism.”  Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb. 2000) (reader).

Kapstein, Ethan.  “A Global Third Way:  Social Justice and the World Economy.”  World Policy Journal (winter 1998) (reader).


(Nov. 21)

·        What are the major issues that stand out as the toughest challenges for human rights for the future?

·        To what extent have we moved “beyond the state” with respect to the enforcement of human rights norms? To what extent does the state retain authority and importance in an era of globalization? Are some matters still exclusively within the province of domestic jurisdiction or state sovereignty? If yes, are these matters completely immune from international regulation? 

·        Did the human rights movement erode sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction?  What does Spiro suggest about American exceptionalism?  Do you agree with his point here?

·        Do you agree with Forsythe about the challenges of liberal politics in a realist world?

·        Is the human rights movement having a “mid-life crisis”?

·        What is “the next step” for human rights advocacy?  Make an “action plan” for nongovernmental human rights advocates.


The Politics of Liberalism in a Realist World

Forsythe, pp. 217-236

Ignatieff, Michael.  “Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis”.  New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999 (reader).

Rieff, David. “The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights”. New York Times Magazine, August 8, 1999 (handout).

Spiro, Peter J.  “The New Sovereigntists: American Exceptionalism and Its False Prophets”. Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 6 (November/December 2000), pp. 9-15 (reader).

Roth, Kenneth.  “Sidelined on Human Rights.”  Foreign Affairs (March/April 1998)(reader).

(Dec. 5)

            ** Final Essay Due on “The Future of Human Rights…”***


·        What are the major issues that stand out as the toughest challenges for human rights for the future?

·        To what extent have we moved “beyond the state” with respect to the enforcement of human rights norms? To what extent does the state retain authority and importance in an era of globalization? Are some matters still exclusively within the province of domestic jurisdiction or state sovereignty? If yes, are these matters completely immune from international regulation? 

·        Did the human rights movement erode sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction?  What does Spiro suggest about American exceptionalism?  Do you agree with his point here?

·        Do you agree with Forsythe about the challenges of liberal politics in a realist world?

·        Is the human rights movement having a “mid-life crisis”?

·        What is “the next step” for human rights advocacy?  Make an “action plan” for nongovernmental human rights advocates.


The Politics of Liberalism in a Realist World

Forsythe, pp. 217-236

Ignatieff, Michael.  “Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis”.  New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999 (reader).

Rieff, David. “The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights”. New York Times Magazine, August 8, 1999 (handout).

Spiro, Peter J.  “The New Sovereigntists: American Exceptionalism and Its False Prophets”. Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 6 (November/December 2000), pp. 9-15 (reader).

Roth, Kenneth.  “Sidelined on Human Rights.”  Foreign Affairs (March/April 1998) (reader).

Julie Mertus • Assistant Professor • American University • • (202) 885 - 1541