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The United States and Human Rights


Admission requirements

Bachelor’s degree.

Note: This course is intended for students from a limited number of programmes. Because of the limited capacity available for each programme, you may be placed on a waiting list. Students in the MA program in North American Studies (NAS) and if their places are filled, those in Literary Studies will have priority. The definite admission will be made according to the position on the waiting list and the number of places that will be available after the NAS students have been placed. In total there is room for a maximum of 24 students in the seminar.


This course traces and analyzes the significance of human rights in U.S. foreign relations from the 1940s to the present. Beginning with the ideas and institutions developed during and immediately after World War II, the course examines the changing relationship between human rights and U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, the early post-Cold War era, and the War on Terror. The course balances a chronological progression with a topical approach that includes historical perspectives on human rights advocacy and state violence, neoliberalism and democracy promotion, and humanitarianism. The course will also blend a study of U.S. foreign policy with a transnational approach that analyzes the flow of human rights ideas and the impact of advocacy networks across national borders.

Drawing from a key theme in my own research, this course will encourage students to understand human rights as an evolving political construct rather than a universal moral sensibility. Human rights, in other words, are rooted in political contestations, and have been deployed in recent history to discursively legitimate strikingly divergent policies and projects. As such, human rights history is particularly well-suited for thinking critically about U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Integrating a human rights benchmark such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a discussion of U.S. Cold War policy, for example, can provide a useful analytical tool to evaluate U.S. behavior in the international arena. Similarly, using human rights as a lens to examine domestic struggles in the United States pulls us away from stock narratives of American political reform. The course will also draw upon recent studies of pioneering efforts in the developing world to advance human rights claims encouraging us to move beyond U.S.-centric human rights narratives. Given the significance of non-state actors involved in human rights advocacy, studying human rights history also provides a pathway to move beyond a state-centric approach to history.
Although this course will push students to understand modern human rights history as rooted in political struggles, I also recognize that human rights advocacy has a real potential to make positive change in the modern world. My goal in the classroom is not to replace students’ idealism with a cynical realism; to the contrary, through the study of human rights history, I aim to provide a foundation for sophisticated and effective engagement with human rights issues.

Course Objectives

Students will gain knowledge and understanding regarding:

  • the history of the United States;

  • the history of human rights;

  • debates regarding key themes such as gender, transnational approaches to U.S. history, U.S. politics, and foreign policy;

  • trends in American historiography during the twentieth century and beyond.

Students will practice their ability to:

  • summarize, analyze, and discuss key texts in American history and human rights history;

  • place those texts in their historical context and identify the political and ethical values that influenced them (relativism);

  • relate historiographical debates to contemporary issues;

  • write concise pieces that analyze set texts;

  • introduce an oral discussion of a set text;

  • write a research essay about a topic in American history.


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Mode of instruction

Literature seminar.

Attendance is required. If a student cannot attend class, he or she needs to contact the instructor in advance with an explanation. The instructor will then decide if it is excusable and if and how the student can make up the missing work.

Assessment method


  • Research Proposal (10%);

  • Research essay (5000 words) (60%);

  • Oral presentation (10%);

  • Assignments (literature reviews) and class participation (20%).


See assessment.


If the final grade is insufficient, only the research essay can be rewritten.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

  • Iriye, Goedde, and Hitchcock, eds., The Human Rights Revolution: An International History

  • Sara Snyder, From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy

  • Additional literature and primary sources will be made available through Blackboard and/or a course shelf in the University Library.


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Dr. W.M. Schmidli