The Evolution of Human Rights Law

Lecture, Open—Spring

One need not look far for examples of a state’s sickening treatment of its citizens. Recent history gives us Syria; a longer view includes the Holocaust and many other examples. The world has seen pogroms, merciless religious crusades, tragic political show trials, and, unfortunately, frequent episodes of genocide. But history, especially recent history, has also yielded a regime designed to constrain these practices. So how can we hope to achieve a meaningful understanding of the human experience without examining both the wrongs and the rights? Should the human story be left to so-called realists, who claim that power wins out over ideals every time? Or is there a logic of mutual respect that offers better solutions? This lecture examines the history of human rights law and humanitarian law.  Approximately half the course will address the long and remarkably consistent history of the laws of war, focusing on the principles of military necessity, proportionality, and discrimination, as well as the cultural, political, and technological context in which these laws evolved. The other half will focus on the rights that individuals and groups claim against their own states. We will examine such important cases as Roper v. Simmons (juvenile death penalty), El-Masri (“war on terror”), and Srebenica/Kritić. The readings consist of an edited book (The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World), a selection of case studies, and primary source documents, including treaties and judicial decisions. In addition to the conference project, students will analyze a human rights convention and a firsthand account of their choosing. Although there are no prerequisites, students would benefit from having taken The Contemporary Practice of International Law.