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Making Human Rights Work


While the rise of human rights regimes across the globe is evident, to which extent these regimes are accessible and effective is less clear. This course focuses on the question what human rights mean in practice for people. Citizens who wish to invoke human rights in support of a particular cause are usually confronted with both legal and practical obstacles, and may choose alternative forms of action rather than going to a court or a human rights body. Moreover, in particular in societies where religious and/or customary law are important, framing problems as human rights issues may even be counterproductive and reinforce resistance against redressing such problems. Human rights norms are made at the international level, but to what extent and how do they filter through in various locations; what kind of processes of translation and vernacularization take place; which actors play a role in that; and to what extent are norms imposed or appropriated?

This course examines issues concerning the proliferation and effectiveness of human rights, access to justice and the translation and appropriation of human rights by various actors. It will introduce students to the main theories regarding the potential and limitations of rights and rights discourse, regarding access to justice, legal awareness and legal consciousness, as well as regarding the way in which human rights may be interpreted, contested and reframed in practice. Such analysis will assist students to better understand under what conditions and in what ways human rights can become effective tools for citizens in improving their lives. The primary focus will be on the developing world, as it is here that the problems of realising human rights are generally most profound. The course is of a socio-legal nature and builds on empirical studies and will thus help students to broaden their view from an internal-legal perspective to an external view of what human rights may and may not achieve.


At the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Recognize the roles human rights play in different social contexts, and how they can be translated into local normative repertoires, notably in societies where customary and religious law are important;

  • Illustrate the relevance of concepts such as access to justice, legal awareness, legal consciousness, and vernacularization for the promotion of human rights and can apply this knowledge to concrete cases

  • Understand the difference between looking at human rights from an internal-legal perspective and from an external, socio-legal perspective and how these two relate to one another, they can assess concrete cases from both perspectives and use this knowledge to explain individual or group responses to human rights violations

  • Students are aware of the political nature of human rights implementation; they can explain the main theoretical insights regarding the potential problems of casting social and political problems into human rights language and they can use this knowledge to evaluate a strategic response in promoting social justice

  • students can explain the political processes involved in the ‘spiraling down’ of human rights from the international level to the grassroots, as well as the roles different types of actors play in this process. They can use such knowledge to devise strategies for promoting particular human rights.

Mode of instruction

  • Number of lectures: 8 Lectures/seminars of 3 hours each

  • Names of lecturers: Dr. Lisa Harms, Assistant professor

  • Required preparation by students: Students are supposed to have read all the assigned materials for the course before the seminar concerned. See further under assessment.

Assessment method

Reflection Papers (20%)
Group presentation (20%)
Final Essay (60%)

Contact information

  • Course Co-ordinator: Dr. Lisa Harms, Assistant professor

  • Work address: Kamerlingh Onnes Building, Steenschuur 25, 2311 ES Leiden

  • Telephone number: +31 71 527 2727

  • Email:


Institute: Public law
Administration advanced masters: BIO
Mrs. Mahshid Alizadeh (LL.M.):

Should there be any future extenuating circumstances which may impinge our teaching and assessment, these could necessitate modification of the course descriptions after 1 September. This will only happen in the event of strict necessity and the interests of the students will be taken into account. Should there be a need for any change during the course, this will be informed to all students on a timely basis. Modifications after 1 September 2023 may only be done with the approval and consent of the Faculty Board and Programme Director.