Summer 2019 - POL 417 D100

Human Rights Theories (4)

Class Number: 4605

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    May 6 – Aug 2, 2019: Tue, 1:30–5:20 p.m.

  • Prerequisites:

    Eight upper division units in political science or permission of the department. Recommended: PHIL 220 or 320.



This course introduces students to the problems involved in the assertion of universal moral standards across political and cultural divides. These issues will be explored at a theoretical level, and in the context of specific human rights controversies.


We live in an age of human rights. The global triumph of human rights has signalled, for some, the advancement or even completion of the Enlightenment promise of human emancipation through reason. Yet, amidst poetic declarations and the formation of a vast global legal and institutional apparatus, human life nonetheless finds itself brutally subjected to power, inequality, and expulsion on a mass scale. As Jacques Derrida has pointed out, never before have so many human beings been subjugated, dominated, or starved on earth. The rapid growth of urban slums throughout the world and the intensification of processes of economic inequality under neoliberal capitalism, as well as the emergence of new conflicts and growing populations of stateless and displaced persons, seem to indicate that our age is one of human crisis rather than triumph. In this way, the historical ascendancy of human rights has proved to be a paradoxical process. This course interrogates the paradox of what human rights mean and can mean in a world plagued by violence, inequality, and domination. It does this by facilitating a critical engagement with historical and contemporary human rights theories. Particular emphasis is placed on feminist theories and practices of human rights, from Olympe de Gouge and Mary Wollstonecraft to contemporary transnational feminist networks and movements. Some of the major questions we will confront are: What are human rights and what explains their historical emergence as a specific form of legal-political discourse and practice? What are the grounds for human rights? How do human rights function in the real world? Who counts as human? How do human rights relate to gender? Who or what stands opposed to human rights? What is the relationship between social movements and human rights? Can human rights be established and secured through legislation and institutions or do they exist only insofar as they are enacted by means of collective struggle?

There will be one 4-hour seminar each week.


  • Critical Book Review 20%
  • Short Essay 15%
  • Group Presentation 15%
  • Participation 15%
  • Major Research Essay 35%



Students are to select and purchase only one of the following texts, which they will use for their Critical Book Review assignment. All other readings will be posted on Canvas.

1. R.R. Palmer. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution. New York: Princeton University Press, 2017. 
ISBN: 978-0691175928

2. C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1989. 
ISBN: 978-0679724674

3. Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin, 2006. 
ISBN: 978-0143039884

4. Philip Gourevitch. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998.
ISBN: 978-0374706487

Department Undergraduate Notes:

The Department of Political Science strictly enforces a policy on plagiarism.
For details, see and click on “Plagiarism and Intellectual Dishonesty” .

Registrar Notes:

SFU’s Academic Integrity web site is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University.