Human Rights Theories 

This class is taught in 11-1 by Andrew Heard

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This course will introduce you to the broad concepts involved in human rights issues, as well as provide a comparative overview of some particular aspects of human rights. Controversies in the concept of rights, and problems involved in asserting universal moral standards across political and cultural divides will be explored first at a theoretical level. These issues will then be applied in context of specific human rights controversies. 


Michael Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (2nd.ed.)

Stephen Satris, Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Moral Issues, (12 th.ed.) 


Students are required to prepare a paper of  about 15 typed pages as the basis for a class presentation. Two copies of the paper must be handed in at class in the week prior to the presentation. One of these copies will be put on Reserve for other students to read. The presentations should be of approximately 15 minutes duration and give a broad review of the material in the paper. A late penalty of a letter grade per day will be enforced.

Each student must also write 1500-word critiques, about 6 typed pages double-spaced (it may be handwritten) of 2 other student papers. The critique must be handed in at the class when the paper being critiqued is presented. A late penalty of a letter grade per day will be enforced.

The allocation of marks for these assignments is as follows: 

  • Term Paper ........45% 
  • Presentation .......10% 
  • Critiques (2) .......30% 
  • Participation........15%


Late penalties will be imposed for both the essay and critiques.

The essay is due in class the week before the presentation date. Because other students will write critiques of the essay and rely on its timely availability, a late penalty of one letter grade per day will be imposed on essays. For example, if the paper would have been awarded a B+ and it is one day late, the final grade will be a B.

The critique is due to be handed in at the class on the day of the essay presentation that is the subject of the critique. Because the critique is meant to be product of the student’s own thoughts, it must be completed prior to class. A late penalty of one letter grade per day will be imposed on late critiques.


To help you edit your papers prior to submission, download the essay assessment sheet here; when your essay is graded, you will receive an annotated copy of this sheet to help you quickly see the strengths of your essay, and which areas could have been improved.

The range of topics that may be covered in this class, and from which students may choose to do their papers and presentations, include: 

1) Human Rights in Africa
2) Islam and Human Rights
3) Caste in Indian society
4) Freedom of Religion
5) Freedom of Expression and Censorship (hate literature, pornography)
6) Equality, Discrimination, and Affirmative Action
7) Women's Rights
8) Sexism in Western and/or Islamic Cultures
9) The Rights of the Mentally Ill
10) The Rights of Children
11) Rights of Parenthood
12) Surrogate Parenthood
13) Sexual Orientation
14) Infanticide and Do-Not-Resuscitate Orders for New-Borns
15) Euthanasia and "Living Wills"
16) Capital Punishment
17) Targeted Killings
18) Conscription & Conscientious Objectors
19) Group Rights v. Individual Rights
21) Rights of Indigenous Peoples
22) Self-Determination and Independence
23) Modern Slavery
24) Migration and Immigration
25) Refugees
26) International Enforcement (e.g. through the United Nations)
27) Specific Country Studies: India, Iran, Israel etc.
28) Human Rights and the "Development Trade-Off"
29) Human Rights and Emergencies
30) Torture
31) Privacy and Public Surveillance
32) The Right to Food
33) Welfare Rights: including jobs, shelter, medicare
34) The Right to Peace or a Clean Environment as Human Rights 

The body of the essays should be about 4,500 to 5,000 words (roughly 15 double-spaced, typed  pages of text) and must be handed in the week before your presentation is due.  A penalty of one letter grade per day will be enforced for late papers. 

A significant range of sources (10 minimum) should be used as the research basis for the essay.

In order to receive credit for the assignment, all students must submit both a paper version of the essay to the instructor as well as an electronic version to  Sign up for Turnitin, if you haven't already done so. The register for the course:  Class ID: 3708672 and the Password is the classroom number WMC3220 (use capital letters). The electronic version is due on the same day as the paper version and must match the paper version.

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Students are reminded that proper credit must be given to other authors' work.  When another author's words are used they must be identified as quotations, BY USING EITHER QUOTATION MARKS OR AN INDENTED QUOTATION. The use of another author's particular ideas must also be credited in a note.  All work submitted for this class must be the student's original work done for this class. 

For information and tips on essay writing, consult the Department's Essay Guide. For guidelines on citing references from the Internet, read the Electronic Sources Citation Guide

Readings on these topics may be found in a variety of sources. There is a bibliography on human rights available for finding material in journals and books.

Connect to this web site's Web Resources page for links to helpful research material. 

The following books are available on RESERVE at the library to help you with your research: 

  • Judith Baker, Group Rights
  • Marshall Cohen, The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion
  • Alan Gewirth, Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Application
  • Michael Freeden, Rights
  • Alison Renteln, International Human Rights: Universalism Versus Relativism
  • Peter Singer, A Companion to Ethics



The critiques are due in class on the day that the essay is presented, and they should be a maximum of five typed pages (1500 words). The purpose of a critique is to convey two essential messages: what the essay was about, and how effective the author was in conveying his or her message. In this assignment, you are expected to provide a summary of the main points that the author was trying to make, and to comment critically on how well she or he expressed the arguments. What was the essential message that the author tried to communicate in this essay - why was it written? What were the most important elements of the argument she or he tried to construct in order to get that message across? How convincing were the arguments, and why? Was there consistency in the arguments and examples? What points would you make either to support the author's central message or to challenge it? You should draw on material from a MINIMUM of 4 other sources beyond the essay; this outside material should be referred to substantially to support your comments on the essay

Make sure that your own paper is written with care. Organize your points logically. Include substantive, even if brief, introductory and concluding paragraphs. Pay close attention to your grammar and choice of words, too. 


Each student must do a presentation of their essay’s topic. The presentation is intended as a brief discussion of the paper's issues that will set up class discussion in the period that follows.

Since the essays are made available to the reset of the class for the week prior to the presentation, the rest of the class should have read the essay already. Thus, the presentation provides a chance to summarize briefly the main points raised in the paper, while adding further detail and broader context.

The presentation should last about 10-15 minutes.

The presentation is an opportunity to develop public-speaking skills. Strive for is a talk that is delivered mainly in an ad-libbed, conversational manner, using notes to organize and guide your talk. Presentations should NOT simply be read straight from a text, and certainly not straight out of the essay.

Presenters are strongly encouraged to use PowerPoint, web pages, overheads, handouts, or the blackboard to enliven their presentations.

If you feel nervous about giving presentions in front of a class, this artcle from the Globe & Mail may help.