Human Rights in Historical Perspective
Undergraduate: Level 5
Monday 13 January 2020
Friday 20 March 2020
20 August 2019
Requisites for this module
BA V1L2 History with Human Rights,
BA V1L8 History with Human Rights (Including Foundation Year),
BA V1LF History with Human Rights (Including Year Abroad),
BA V1LG History with Human Rights (Including Placement Year)
This module explores the historical grounding of 'Human Rights' by examining the origins of many constituent concerns from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. These concerns include the practice and theory of torture, the definition of man and beast, slavery and the rights of the free man, the persecution and judicial treatment of deviance and witchcraft, the interference of Church and State in the freedom of expression, the development of a language of 'rights', the state-led engagement with matters of identification, privacy and security, comparative notions of human rights and tolerance in China, and, more recently, the international attempts at the definition and enforcement of rights.
'Human Rights in Historical Perspective' gives students the opportunity to engage with a very broad range of historical topics, all central to a modern understanding of 'human rights'. It will develop awareness of the complexity and indeterminacy of many constituent issues, the extent and challenge of continuing historical debate, and the relevance of continuing historical research and writing in the exploration of contemporary human rights issues. What are the historical origins of 'rights' that are intellectual and legal constructs invented and promulgated from very particular places at very particular times? The debates are far from over, they are current, and they are exceptionally lively. This module aims to extend these debates, and is taught, by lecture and seminar, the lectures given by different contributing historians, each with their own specialisms and perspectives. Although the sessions offer contrasting approaches and explore many different subjects, the series also develops a number of important themes across the sessions - and across time and geography. Dispute and argument, both historical and contemporary, remain further common elements.
It is often argued that it is anachronistic for historians to locate discussion of ‘human rights’ much before the emergence of the ‘language of human rights’ in the late eighteenth century, or indeed of its general usage as a term much before the twentieth century. Many historians, however, take another view – such as that championed by Lynn Hunt in her recent best-selling Inventing Human Rights. It has also been argued (by Anthony Pagden and others) that the modern understanding of natural rights evolved in the context of the European struggle to legitimate its overseas empires. The French Revolution changed this by, in effect, linking human rights to the idea of citizenship. Human rights were thus tied not only to a specific ethical-legal code but also implicitly to a particular kind of political system, both of inescapably European origin.
The debates are far from over, they are current, and they are exceptionally lively. This module aims to extend these debates, and is taught, by lecture and seminar, by six different contributing historians, each with their own specialisms and perspectives. Although the sessions offer contrasting approaches and explore many different subjects, the series also develops a number of important themes across the sessions - and across time and geography. Dispute and argument, both historical and contemporary, remain further common elements.
What is incontestable is that numerous elements of what we now consider ‘human rights issues’ (and what Lynn Hunt calls ‘rights talk’) derive from practices and debates with ancient histories. A primary interest concerns the philosophies of human interaction and the conceptualization and practice of social justice. In 1755 the French philosophe, Denis Diderot returned again and again to the problem of ‘droits naturels’ and wrote that ‘the use of the term is so familiar that there is almost no one who would not be convinced inside himself that the thing is obviously known to him. This interior feeling is common both to the philosopher and to the man who has not reflected at all.’ Diderot’s insight was based on an understanding that constituent aspects of human rights boasted a very long history indeed.
This module gives students the opportunity to engage with a very broad range of historical topics, all central to a modern understanding of ‘human rights’. It will develop awareness of the complexity and indeterminacy of many constituent issues, the extent and challenge of continuing historical debate, and the relevance of continuing historical research and writing in the exploration of contemporary human rights issues.
General reading list:
Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York and London, 2007) Introduction.
Edward Peters, Torture (London, 1985).
Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man : The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge, 1982), chs. 3-6.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
Margaret E. McGuinness, 'Peace v. Justice: The Universal declaration of Human Rights and the Modern Origins of the Debate', Diplomatic History 35 (2011), November issue.
- E. Bever. (2009) 'Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic', in Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic. vol. 40 (2) , pp.263-293
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations, http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
- Davis, D.B. (1999) The problem of slavery in the age of revolution, 1770-1823, New York: Oxford Universtiy Press.
- Peters, E. (1996) Torture, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- McGuinness, M.E. (2011-11) 'Peace v. Justice: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Modern Origins of the Debate*', in Diplomatic History. vol. 35 (5) , pp.749-768
- Zarrow, P.G. (2012) After empire: the conceptual transformation of the Chinese state, 1885-1924, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
- Bauer, J.R.; Bell, D. (1999) The East Asian challenge for human rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hunt, L. (2007) Inventing human rights: a history, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
- J. Harnischfeger. (2000) 'Witchcraft and the State in South Africa', in Anthropos: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH. vol. 95 (1) , pp.99-112
- Eisenstein, E.L. (1979) The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- R. Foot. (2008) 'Exceptionalism Again: The Bush Administration, the “Global War on Terror” and Human Rights', in Law and History Review: American Society for Legal History. vol. 26, pp.707-725
- V.C. Keating. (2014) 'Contesting the International Illegitimacy of Torture: The Bush Administration's Failure to Legitimate its Preferences within International Society.', in British Journal of Politics & International Relations.. vol. 16 (1) , pp.1-27
- Peters, Edward. (1973) 'Extract from the Cautio Criminalis by Friedrich Spee (published anonymously, 1631)', in Witchcraft in Europe, 1100-1700: a documentary history, London: Dent., pp.351-357
- Horvath, R. (2007) '"The Solzhenitsyn Effect": East European Dissidents and the Demise of the Revolutionary Privilege', in Human Rights Quarterly. vol. 29 (4) , pp.879-907
- Butler, W.E. (1988) Soviet law, London: Butterworths. vol. Butterworths' legal systems of the world
- Transcript of Kofi Annan's address at the Truman Presidential Library on 11 December 2006, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2006-12-11/secretary-generals-address-truman-presidential-museum-and-library
The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.
Assessment items, weightings and deadlines
|Coursework / exam
||Document Analysis (1500 words)
||Essay (3000 words)
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Belinda Waterman, Department of History, 01206 872313
Dr Simon Rofe
University of London
Reader in Diplomatic and International Studies
Available via Moodle
Of 30 hours, 30 (100%) hours available to students:
0 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).
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