Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module LAW42230: International Protection of Human Rights

Department: Law

LAW42230: International Protection of Human Rights

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2019/20 Module Cap None.


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • The module aims to provide students with a wide-ranging, critical understanding of international human rights law and practice. The module will introduce students to the international human rights system including its historical and conceptual underpinnings, the content and implementation of particular substantive rights, the development of the United Nations and regional human rights protection mechanisms and the reception of international human rights law in national legal systems. Students will be encouraged to engage with critiques of the conceptual basis for human rights, the structure and evolution of the system and current challenges to the system’s relevance and effectiveness.


  • In the first half of the module, we will examine the following introductory topics with a view to understanding how the international legal system operates and identifying its principal strengths and weaknesses: 1. Background to the international human rights regime (conceptual foundations and historical development). 2. Current debates on universalism and cultural relativism. 3. Identifying rights-holders and duty-bearers. 4. ‘Generations of rights’ that is civil and political or first generations rights; economic social and cultural or second-generations rights; and third generations rights such as the rights to development, self-determination, a healthy environment and peace. 5. Mechanisms for the implementation of rights including the UN Charter and treaty bodies, regional human rights bodies and national institutions. In the second half of the module, we will focus on particular substantive rights and contemporary challenges to the international system for the protection of human rights. These may include: Poverty and Human Rights, Non-State Actors, Women’s Rights, Children’s Rights, the Prohibition on Torture, International Refugee Law, Protection of Minority Groups, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Worker’s Rights and Environmental Degradation.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Students will have:
  • A thorough knowledge of the foundations of the international human rights regime and the principal mechanisms for the implementation of international human rights law;
  • Familiarity with, and an understanding of, the main critiques of international human rights;
  • A demonstrably in-depth knowledge of the content and application of particular substantive rights;
  • An appreciation of the role of different actors (individuals, states, inter-governmental organisations, national human rights institutions, civil society organisations, corporations) within the international human rights law project; and
  • An understanding of contemporary challenges for international human rights law.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students should be able to:
  • Interpret and evaluate critically relevant documents within international human rights law and identify the theoretical and critical approaches informing their interpretation;
  • Show an appreciation of the interaction between international human rights law, political factors and historical developments;
  • Identify key contemporary issues within international human rights law;
  • Apply knowledge of international human rights law to practical legal situations; and
  • Conduct independent research into international human rights law and practice.
Key Skills:
  • Students should be able to:
  • Demonstrate an ability to understand and analyse critically a wide range of complex issues, drawing on a variety of materials;
  • Develop expertise in conducting legal research using materials from a variety of national, regional and international sources;
  • Describe accurately and coherently the arguments and analysis of academic commentators;
  • Write and present orally in a clear and structured way and put forward ideas in a scholarly manner; and
  • Demonstrate an ability to explore creatively complex issues in writing.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • There will be two introductory lectures at the beginning of the module and one lecture introducing the material to be covered in the second (Epiphany) term. These introductory lectures will be used to provide a general overview of the international human rights system and to explore the learning objectives, teaching methods and guidelines for assessment in the module with students. Thereafter, the module will be run by way of weekly 2 hour seminars – most of these will cover topics in the module (listed under Content, above) and a few will be used for the student presentations that are part of the assessment for the module.
  • Seminars will generally focus on a set of questions for discussion. Questions which will be looked at the introductory seminar are: 1. Is the perception that human rights are a Western construct convincing? 2. Is the idea of ‘generations’ or ‘waves’ (first, second, third) of rights useful? 3. Are specialist/single issue treaties a valuable addition to the general human rights treaties? 4. To what extent does international human rights law present a challenge to the criticism that international law is state-centred. 5. Why study international human rights law?
  • Questions for discussion: seminar on economic, social and cultural rights are: 1. What rights are protected by the ICESCR? Are there any more that you would have included? 2. What is their relationship of the rights protected by the ICESCR to the rights protected by the ICCPR? 3. What is the relevance of the ‘availability of resources’ to the obligation in Article 2 ICESCR? 4. How are the rights contained in the ICESCR enforced? Note the discussion in Steiner, Alston & Goodman at p362 et seq, of a possible Optional Protocol to the ICESCR (written before the real one was adopted). In the light of that discussion, what is your opinion of the actual Optional Protocol to the ICESCR? 5. Read the extracts from the Conclusion Observations of the ESCR Committee on Albania, extracted at p278 of Steiner, Alston and Goodman. How does this compare to the work of, for example, the Human Rights Committee under the ICCPR? What is your opinion of the ESCR Committee’s conclusions?
  • These questions and a list of essential readings will be made available in advance of each class to facilitate an interactive approach to the material. The seminars in the first term of the module will focus on a general overview of the international human rights system: historical and conceptual underpinnings; UN, regional and domestic mechanisms for the protection and promotion of human rights; critiques and challenges. In the second term, the module will examine certain substantive rights and specific contemporary challenges to the system in detail. There will be two formative and two summative assessments in the module.
  • For the first summative assessment, due at the beginning of the second term, students will be required to produce a research poster on a topic selected from a list provided by the module convenor or one chosen in consultation with the convenor. Students will work on their own or in groups, depending on the size of the class. The first formative assessment will be an oral presentation of a draft of this poster. This will take place at the end of the first term and students will be required, in the presentation, to explain the content of their posters and address questions posed by members of the class and the convenor.
  • The second summative assessment will be a 4000-word essay, to be submitted during the third term, on a topic chosen in consultation with the convenor. The formative assessment will consist of two-parts. Students will be required to draft an essay plan (maximum 1000 words including references), to be submitted in writing for individual feedback at the beginning of the third term. In addition, students will present their plans and address questions on those plans at a seminar toward the end of the second term. The formative and summative assessments are designed to ensure that students have met the research, analysis and communication objectives of the module.
  • Students will receive written feedback for both summative and formative feedback using the oral presentations feedback profroma. The students will receive individual feedback on each of their presentations (on the research poster, the written plan for the essay and the oral presentation on the plan for the essay)

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 3 First two weeks of Michaelmas and first week of Epiphany 2 hours 6
Seminars 12 Weekly 2 hours 24
Preparation and Reading 270
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Summative Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Research Poster 30% resit poster
Summative Essay 4,000 words 70% 4,000 words, different titles

Formative Assessment:

1. Oral presentation explaining a draft of the research poster 2. Oral presentation of a plan for the summative essay and a 1000-word written essay plan

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University