Human Rights and Humanitarianism in the Modern World




Human rights and humanitarianism are fundamental to modern political ethics. Yet the moral consensus surrounding these terms obscures an often disturbing history. This course is an introduction to human rights and humanitarianism as frameworks for understanding European, imperial, and global history from the enlightenment to the present day. Rather than uncritically accepting a triumphalist narrative, we will explore how these concepts were constructed over time, asking how they were used in practice, whose interests they served, and how they enabled inequality and exclusion along axes of race, gender, class, and nationality even as they promised a more just world. We will consider a variety of theoretical approaches to the question of why we care about others, and analyze the role of these modes of care in transformative events and processes of modern history including the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its abolition in the first half of the 19th century, imperial expansion and decolonization from the late 19th century through the 1960s, 20th century genocides, and the end of South African apartheid in 1994. We will access this history through a mix of primary and secondary sources including theorists like Susan Sontag and Makau wa Mutua, novelists like Sindiwe Magona, and historical figures like Roger Casement and Mary Prince. Ultimately, we will come away from the course with a more nuanced understanding of the role of human rights and humanitarianism in pressing contemporary issues including immigration debates, racialized police violence, and unequal access to care during Covid.


Additional Information

Faculty: Yan Slobodkin
Semester: Full Fall Term
Time: Wed, 12:45 - 2:45 p.m. ET