Human Rights Syllabi:Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Amnesty International USA Resource Notebook: Syllabi for the College Classroom


University of California at Berkeley

The Politics of Human Rights
and Humanitarian Interventions

Spring 1998 - CCN: 75626,
School of Public Health/Graduate School of Journalism
Human Rights Center /International and Area Studies
Public Health 290, Section 9
Wed. 2:00-5:00, 3 units

Eric Stover
Jody Ranck

Twenty years ago, few people could have identified a human rights or humanitarian organization such as Amnesty International or the International Committee of the Red Cross respectively. Today, human rights and humanitarian organizations like Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, the International Rescue Committee, and the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders have become household names to millions of peoples and have established a presence in war-torn countries around the world. Local nongovernmental organizations have also sprung up around the world at an increasing rate. In many countries they are advocating for political and social changes that transformed political identities and values and are delivering services--in urban and rural community development, education, and health care--that faltering governments can no longer provide.

In the past decade, human rights organizations have recognized that efforts to protect human rights should extend to armed conflicts, where the most massive abuses take place. As part of this advance, the UN Security Council has established two international war crimes tribunals--the first of their kind since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials following World War II--to investigate crimes against humanity and genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. There is also renewed efforts to create a permanent international criminal court. Yet the assumptions behind these interventions have yet to be critically examined.

This course will study specific topics related to the history and politics of human rights and humanitarian interventions over the past 50 years. We will examine the various approaches taken by human rights activists and lawyers, journalists, social scientists, and documentary film makers to document and disseminate information about human rights abuses and war crimes. We will study the current debate over the need for "truth telling" or the pursuit of justice for past abuses and the assumptions that such interventions promote reconciliation and individual and collective healing. We will analyze how delivering humanitarian aid has become a multimillion dollar "business" and how, at times, humanist values have directly clashed with the pursuit of justice, local values and human rights. We will examine how human rights interventions to end child labor can, in some cases, undermine the economic livelihood of poor families and discuss whether such interventions do more harm than good in specific contexts. These contrasts and contradictions are the stuff of conflict and cooperation worldwide. Similar challenges face current thinking about the role of development as a means of affecting social change and how the debates on the manner in which current international financial and trading regimes can either reinforce or undermine social, cultural, and political rights. We will study the development of medical ethics as a response to the Nazi experiments on concentration camp inmates and how, in specific cases, the medical profession has ignored these ethical standards in studies involving human subjects. These dilemmas also permeate debates on such issues as the human genome project, the testing of AIDS vaccines, and immigration policies. These debates around medical ethics also reach to the conflicts over economic development and multinationals when pharmaceutical companies enter new markets or seek patents on indigenous medicines. Important questions need also be asked about these codes of ethics as universal constructs and their interactions with local moral worlds with their differences and similarities.


Week 2


Truth, Justice and Social Suffering.

Week 3

Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Human Rights and Accountability

Week 4

Truth Commissions, Trials and Popular Justice

Week 5

Social Suffering

War and Humanitarian Intervention

Week 6

History and Politics of Humanitarianism

Week 7

Arms Trade and Privatization of Violence

Week 8

Civilizing War

Culture and Human Rights

Week 9

Cultural Relativism

Week 10

Competing Rights

Week 11

Transnationalism and Refugees

Develoment Trade and the Environment

Week 12

Development, Trade and Sanctions

Week 13

Environmental Rights and Human Rights

Medical Ethics and Human Experimentation

Week 14

Human Studies and Experimentation

Week 15

Pharmaceuticals, Human Genome Project

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