Department of Political Science


The Theoretical Foundations of Human Rights

Course Code


Course Tutor

Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia (Department of Political Science)


One 3,000 word essay

Credit Value


About this course

What justifies a belief in human rights? Can they be defended as universal standards across the globe? How should we interpret human rights and their corresponding responsibilities? Who must uphold them? Do they clash with democracy? What human rights should I support in my practical work? This module links important and challenging questions about how we interpret human rights in law and policy with the theoretical underpinnings for those rights. Students will study the normative frameworks that have been offered for human rights in political theory and legal philosophy, different theories of rights as well as different theoretical criticisms of human rights. They will also look at the key critiques of human rights, from relativism, democracy, and gender bias. These topics will be tackled by asking students to consider the core point and purpose of human rights standards, as opposed to other standards like social fairness. The ultimate aim of the modules is to equip students with the tools to decide for themselves, from an informed point of view, what can appropriately be called a human right, what cannot, and what limits they have, what the best defence there is of them, and how to think about ethical questions when confronting practical decisions in their research. They will be encouraged to develop analytical and critical argument-building skills, tools for problem solving, and to engage in analysis and debate in preparation for writing an essay that sets out a clear argument.

By the end of the course, students will:

  • understand how different human rights ethical theories feed into informing the empirical and legal study of human rights;
  • understand the main ethical theories of human rights and the key arguments in favour and against for those theories;
  • be able to present an argument for a view and be aware of possible responses;
  • be able to apply human rights principles (and theories) to the interpretation and evaluation of human rights practice, law, and policy, and use this in a research project;
  • be able to make informed decisions about ethical questions in their research work and approach to human rights in the field.