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International Human Rights Law

Course Times & Enrolment

This course is currently unavailable.

Course Summary

This course will provide an introduction to international human rights law and how human rights are protected and enforced. We will start with a look at the history and philosophy that led to the development of international human rights treaties in the 20th century, and also provide a brief introduction to the institutions involved in the development and enforcement of human rights internationally. Students will then explore a range of specific rights in greater detail, through the use of case studies, discussion and debate.

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No previous knowledge is required.

Content of Course

1. Introduction to international human rights law.

We will begin by looking at the philosophical and historical background that has led to the development of international human rights.  We will also consider the key international treaties that set out the legal framework for protecting human rights.

2. Legal institutions and enforcing human rights.

We will examine the role of international legal institutions, such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe, in monitoring and enforcing human rights, and critically evaluate the effectiveness of these institutions at protecting individual human rights.

3. Equality and non-discrimination.

Human rights are said to be “universal,” and virtually all human rights instruments begin with a clause that prohibits discrimination in the enjoyment of rights, but are some rights more equal than others?  We will look at areas in which human rights arguments have been used to tackle discrimination, and think critically about whether there is universal agreement on grounds of non-discrimination.

4. The right to life and freedom from torture.

The right to life and freedom from torture are absolute rights, on which there is near-universal agreement.  But when does protection of life begin, and how far does it extend?  Do we have a clear definition of torture that works effectively across cultures?  We will explore the boundaries of these rights through case studies and debate.

5. The right to liberty of the person.

We will look at case studies that illustrate deprivation of liberty by the state (criminal, administrative and medical detention), and consider the limits of the state’s power to curtail the liberty of its citizens.  We will also look at deprivation of liberty by private individuals, for example, in the trafficking of persons for exploitation, and discuss the extent of the state’s responsibility to safeguard individuals against each other.

6. Freedom of expression.

We enjoy freedom of expression in our day-to-day lives, but are aware that this is a qualified right, which can be restricted by the state.  We will closely examine the permissible reasons for these restrictions, and consider whether the current trend is heading in the direction of greater, or less, freedom of speech.

7. Freedom of religion.

Freedom of conscience is an absolute right, but states can, and do, restrict freedom of religious practice.  We will explore the question of whether it is possible to meaningfully separate conscience from religious practice, by examining a selection of case studies and recent case law.

8. Minority rights.

We will look at the historical and legal background to the protection of minority rights, and consider what it means to be a minority.  We will also use this topic as an opportunity to explore in greater detail the theory and principles underlying the protection of economic, cultural and social rights.

9. Rights of women and children.

International human rights legal treaties protect the rights of all persons (by definition), so why has it been necessary to develop separate instruments to promote and protect the rights of women and children?   We will consider this question, and also look at some case studies that demonstrate the practical application of the rights embodied in these treaties.

10. The future of human rights.

We will reflect on our learning throughout the course, and consider recent trends in human rights law and practice, with a view to making some group predictions about what the future might hold for the development of human rights.

Teaching method(s)

Two-hour class, consisting of lecture and tutor-led discussion.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Identify the key sources of law and institutions underpinning the enforcement of international human rights;

  • Think critically about the role of institutions, states and individuals in enforcing rights;

  • Analyse current issues in politics and society using historical, philosophical and legal perspectives on rights;

  • Frame legal arguments and engage constructively in debate on the role of human rights in society.


Core Readings


  • Smith, R.K.M., 2019. Textbook on International Human Rights. 9th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Older editions can also be used for this course]

Class Handouts

A range of legal materials and articles on current issues as supplementary materials will be provided in advance of each class to facilitate debate and discussion. Lecture slides will also be made available. 


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.