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What are human rights? Why study their history?

Core reading

  • Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, ‘What are Human Rights? Four Schools of Thought’, Human Rights Quarterly 32: 1 (Feb., 2010), 1-20 [online].
  • Lynn Hunt, ‘Paradoxical Origins of Human Rights’ in Wasserstrom et al (eds.), Human Rights in Revolution (Lantham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).
  • Hannah Arendt, ‘The Perplexities of Human Rights’ in Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1973), 290-302.

Further reading

Micheline R. Ishay, The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (Berkeley, UC Press, 2008, 2nd edition)

Kenneth Cmiel, ‘A Recent History of Human Rights’, American Historical Review (February 2004), 117-135.

Anthony Woodiwiss, Human Rights (New York: Routledge, 2005)

Robert Fine, 'Thoughts on the Legitimacy of Human Rights', in Legitimization in World Society, Aldo Mascareno and Kathya Araujo (eds.) (Ashgate, 2012), 25-44.

Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2003)

Charles R. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights (OUP, 2011)

Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton: 2003)

Thomas Cushman (ed.), Handbook of Human Rights (Routledge, 2011)

Giorgio Agamben, ‘Beyond Human Rights’ in Virno, Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds.), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis, 1996)

Ayten Gündoğdu, ‘‘‘Perplexities of the Rights of Man”: Arendt on the Aporias of Human Rights’, European Journal of Political Theory (2012 – updated version, January 9 [online])

Claude Lefort, ‘Politics and Human Rights’ in The Political Forms of Modern Society (Cambridge, 1986 [orig in French, 1980]). Available online at

Pheng Chea, Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights (Harvard, 2006)

J. M. Headley, The Europeanization of the World: On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy (Princeton, 2007)

Paul Gordon Lauren, Evolution of International Human Rights (Univ of Penn Press, 2011)

Johannes Morsink, Inherent Human Rights: Philosophical Roots of the Universal Declaration (Univ of Penn Press, 2009)