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International Rights in History



The seminar course explores the development of international rights in historical perspective. In particular, seminar participants will explore how human rights became internationalized. The sessions present an overview of the trajectories leading to the hardening of liberal ideas of freedom and liberty into international norms. The course uses history, legal sources and philosophical concepts to show the plurality and limits embedded into the concept of human rights. The seminar hopes to offer a wholesome understanding that will enable students to grasp the possibilities and limits of human rights today.

Course objectives


  1. Understand the main historiographical positions on the origins of international rights from the eighteenth century to the present.
  2. Comprehend the main reasons why rights, and human rights in particular, have become a matter of international concern.
  3. Recognize the differences between individualist and communitarian histories of rights, and how these matter to contemporary social challenges.


  1. Students will grasp and discuss the evolution of rights from the French Revolution to their contemporary manifestation in international legal standards.
  2. Students will learn how nationalism and statehood influenced the internationalization of rights.
  3. Students will understand how international migration, commerce and globalization have influenced the development of international rights.
  4. Students will acquire an in-depth theoretical knowledge of how international human rights law relates to other areas of international protection such as migration and refugee law through case studies.

Mode of instruction

The course will be conducted in seminar format with the instructor providing a directed discussion around the themes. Six sessions are devoted to case studies aimed at applying the learning outcomes to contemporary issues form a legal standpoint. Since the case studies engage with developing situations, they present a valuable opportunity to use highly interactive instructional strategies such as debates. Case studies are also good pedagogical tools for understanding the subtle interactions between the legal principles and political interests underlying many of the subjects covered. Readings assigned for the case studies consist mainly of primary sources as opposed to the more theoretical materials provided for the substantive lessons.

Assessment method

Assessment is both formative (60%) and summative (40%) to account for different forms of learning. Formative assessment is structured around soft skills development and includes one in-class presentation for 25% of the grade, the submission of one reaction paper based on assigned readings for 25% of the grade and participation in online discussion boards for 10% of the grade. Summative assessment consists of a take-home research paper assignment for 40% of the grade. The assessment methods are outlined in detail below
Presentation for 25% of the grade: One in-person (conditions allowing), audio or video presentation on any topic covered during one of the sessions. Students should submit their presentation title and a short description to the instructor via email within the first week of the course for approval. Presentations should last between 10 and 15 minutes and must be done individually. The deadline to submit the audio or video presentation is one week after the relevant class at the latest. For instance, if the presentation covers topics addressed in Week 6, the presentation should be submitted no later than Week 7. Students are free to decide on the format and content of their presentations and may include PowerPoint slides, video content or other creative media. Unless otherwise requested, the presentations will be placed in a shared drive that will be made available to class participants.
Reaction paper for 25% of the grade: One written reaction paper addressing the discussion questions outlined in one of the sessions. The papers must contain a critical reflection on the discussion questions, and should engage with the readings assigned in the Syllabus. The reaction papers will be evaluated on their level of intellectual engagement with the readings, and summaries will not be accepted. Reaction papers should be between 750 and 1000 words in length, and must be sent to the instructor one week after the relevant class at the latest. For instance, if the reaction paper covers topics addressed in Week 6, the paper should be submitted no later than Week 7. The reaction paper must contain an introduction, discussion and concluding remarks. It is not necessary to include footnotes, but if referencing is used it must be consistent. When citing online content, reaction papers should provide in-text links. Unless otherwise requested, the reaction papers will be placed in a shared drive that will be made available to class participants only.
Online discussion for 10% of the grade: Participation in online discussion boards. A series of discussion topics will be posted by the instructor throughout the course. Students will be expected to engage online with these topics when instructed. Commentary should address the questions raised by the lecturer, and also engage with the comments of peers.
Final paper 40% of the grade: Final research paper. This is a take-home assignmnent. Students will pick their research paper topic together with the lecturer at the beginning of the course. The specific format and requirements for the paper will be outlined by the instructor during the course.
The assessment criteria for all written assignments are: structure and organization, use of language and grammar, identification of key issues, use of legal sources, presentation of evidence, analysis and argumentation.

Reading list

The main textbook for this seminar will be International Human Rights Law (Daniel Moeckli, Sangeeta Shah, and Sandesh Sivakumaran, eds.) 3rd ed., Oxford University Press (2017). A selection of readings will be provided for each session. Students may also want to consult the following volumes for further reading:

  • Christian Tomuschat, Human Rights: between idealism and realism, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press (2014).

  • Dinah Shelton (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of International Human Rights Law, Oxford University Press (2013).

  • Malcolm Evans (ed.), International Law, 5th ed., Oxford University Press (2018).


See general information.


The seminar will be delivered by Dr León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, Researcher in International Law at the Asser Institute for International and European Law/University of Amsterdam. He can be reached at