Human Rights in the 21st Century: Challenges in International Law and Advocacy

Open to students entering grades 11 or 12 or freshman year of college in the fall
I - June 29–July 17, 2020
II - July 21–August 7, 2020
Days & Time:
Monday–Friday, 9:10 –11:00 a.m. and 1:10–3:00 p.m.
Ashraf Ahmed, Michelle Chun

Course Description

Are human rights still relevant in promoting social justice and freedom in the 21st Century? Human rights law and advocacy have been central to international politics since the end of World War II. However, recent rises in authoritarianism and anti-liberal regimes have raised new questions on whether the human rights framework is still capable of addressing injustices in the modern world. This course introduces students to the law and practice of human rights as well as the challenges of enforcing rights in an international environment that has grown increasingly hostile to principles of human dignity and personal freedom.

In the first part of the course, students review the philosophical foundations of human rights and then examine human rights from two perspective. First, the legal perspective introduces them to basic principles and rules of international law and the main international organizations and mechanisms designed for promoting and enforcing human rights. Second, they adopt the role of social scientist. We debate evidence on the effectiveness of human rights law and discuss challenges of enforcing rights in an international system in which states are not accountable to a higher authority.

In the second part of the course, students apply their new knowledge to the problems facing human rights today. Topics include cultural relativist critiques of human rights as a Western, neo-colonialist institution, challenges from new technologies in state surveillance and autonomous weapons, and existential threats to human populations through climate change and environmental damage.

Each day participants are required to read college-level academic literature on the law and practice of human rights and engage with new ideas through group discussion and activities. The primary assignment for this course is participation in an international moot court activity, which challenges students to research and give oral arguments on a fictitious human rights case.

The course also introduce students to several different perspectives through guest lecturers and field trips to the United Nations Headquarters and the New York Commission on Human Rights.


Ashraf Ahmed

Ashraf Ahmed is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. His interests are in democratic theory and the history of political thought. He will also graduate with a JD from Yale Law School in 2019; his scholarly interests in law include constitutional law, legal theory, torts, and legal history. Ashraf holds an undergraduate degree in social studies from Harvard University and an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history from Cambridge University.

Michelle Chun

Michelle Chun is a political and legal theorist whose research focuses on democratic theory, American pragmatism, and jurisprudence. She also maintains research interests in American constitutional law and civil liberties, early modern liberalism and epistemology, and 20th Century continental political theory. She is currently revising her dissertation, "John Dewey and the Democratic Life of the Law," for publication. Michelle received her PhD in political science from Columbia, where she also completed an MA, MPhil, and a JD as a dual degree candidate; she holds an undergraduate degree in social studies from Harvard University.

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Specific course detail such as hours and instructors are subject to change at the discretion of the University. Not all instructors listed for a course teach all sections of that course.