Political Justice and Human Rights: Foundational Questions

Human rights have become one of the most powerful political and legal instruments of our time. Individuals and groups increasingly articulate their claims in the language of human rights, typically as a way of stressing the need to preserve some basic goods or fundamental needs as a matter of justice. The evolution of the recognition and institutional protection of human rights, both domestically and internationally, can be seen as the institutional implementation of such demands. Yet the normative underpinnings of the concept of human rights remain disputed. This course aims at critically exploring the theoretical foundations of human rights through the lens of major contemporary theories of justice, including liberalism, communitarianism, multiculturalism and feminism. Students should gain a deeper understanding of these theories, and of their influence of on human rights' conceptions and categories. The readings will also expose them to critical challenges posed by those who argue that human rights are culturally specific of the West; or that global emergencies, such as the current pandemic or the threats involved in climate change, render the category of human rights obsolete; or that these rights are very limited a tool to further ideals such as gender equality and to tackle conflicts of identity in multicultural societies. The course aims at unpacking these challenges (and also the way in which reasons of justice play out in public argumentation on human rights) through exploring a number of contemporary controversies, including transnational immigration and the limits to freedom of movement; the status of social and economic rights; the relevance of gender equality in disputes about procreation and family justice; or the clash between individual and group rights in debates over indigenous rights and climate change.