LSJ 320 A: The Politics and Law of International Human Rights

Autumn 2023
MWF 9:30am - 10:20am / SAV 260
Section Type:
Joint Sections:
POL S 368 A
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

University of Washington, Autumn 2023
updated November 22, 2023

**End-of-quarter AI Statement**
**AI Policy Compliance Statement**
**Lecture slides**
**Final Exam Study Guide**

Instructor: Professor Jamie Mayerfeld,
Lectures: MWF 9:30-10:20, Savery Hall 260
Office: Gowen 35
Office Hours: Tuesdays 1:30-3:00, Fridays 10:30-11:30, and by appointment. Visit in person, or by Zoom at         
TAs: Rachel Castellano, Lauren Collins, Chan Yoon

Course Overview:  This course examines the emergence and development, since World War II, of an international movement dedicated to the defense of human rights. We will study the goals of the movement and the global and domestic contexts in which it operates. In the first half of the course, we will explore the idea of human rights and study basic components of international human rights law, using the struggle against racial discrimination as a case study. In the second half of the course, we will study a number of contemporary human rights challenges: violations of women’s rights; mass persecution and penal colonies in Xinjiang, China; war crimes and the laws of war, with a focus on U.S. military campaigns against ISIS and the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and what the climate crisis means for human rights.

Resources: This is a core course for both the Law, Societies and Justice Major, and the Human Rights Minor.  The UW Center for Human Rights promotes human rights through teaching, scholarship, and community partnerships.

Community Engagement (optional):  Students who sign up for this optional program work a few hours each week with a local human rights organization, thereby acquiring direct practical experience with the issues discussed in class.  Choosing the community engagement option is one way to satisfy the experiential learning requirement of the Human Rights Minor.  You can access the Community Engagement & Leadership Education website at

Readings:  Students are required to keep up with a full, though not unreasonable, schedule of readings.  Reading assignments are keyed to lecture sessions, in which informed classroom discussion will play an integral role.  (In other words, I expect you to be able to answer questions about the readings when called on to do so in lecture.)

Texts:  Readings will be contained in a course packet, on sale at Professional Copy N Print, at 4200 University Way NE.  Some course packets will be placed on reserve at Odegaard Library. A few readings will be posted on the Internet. Here are instructions for purchasing course packets.

Quiz Sections:  Quiz sections are a central part of the class. They allow you to explore and debate class material in greater depth, and to resolve any misunderstandings.  Students are expected to attend quiz sections regularly and to contribute informed comments to class discussion.

Research Paper: This assignment asks you to research a human rights topic using resources from the Internet.  Detailed instructions appear below.  Papers are due by electronic submission on Monday, November 20.

Exams: There will be two exams (Fri. Oct. 27 and Wed. Dec. 13) to test your knowledge and understanding of course material.  Study guides will be circulated in advance.

Office Hours: You are all encouraged to visit me during my office hours, Tuesdays between 1:30 and 3:00 and Fridays, between 10:30 and 11:30, or by appointment.  You can come to my office in Gowen 35, or visit me by Zoom at this link:




Midterm Exam                        25%                 Fri. Oct. 27.
Research Paper                       30%                 Due on Mon. Nov. 20.
Final Exam                             30%                 Wed. Dec. 13, 8:30-10:20
Participation                           15%

Academic Integrity:  Cheating and plagiarism of any kind are offenses against academic integrity and are subject to disciplinary action by the University.  Plagiarism is copying someone else’s work and presenting it as your own (by not attributing it to its true source).  If you are uncertain what constitutes plagiarism, please ask me or your TA. The Political Science/JSIS/LSJ/CHID Writing Center also offers guidance on plagiarism.

All use of ChatGPT and other AI text generators (including QuillBot) is prohibited. The only exception is for simple spell check or grammar-check, or Grammarly when used for simple grammar checks but not for extensive rewriting. (However, I discourage use of Grammarly altogether.)

At the start of the course, you will submit a document stating that you will abide by the course policy on ChatGPT and other AI Text Generators. At the end of the course, you will submit a document stating that you have abided by this policy. Submitting both documents is necessary to earn credit in this class. Both documents must be truthful.  For more discussion of course policy on ChatGPT and other AI text generators, please visit this page.

Covid-19: Covid-19 remains a serious concern. Please take necessary precautions to protect yourself and others from infection. The University offers this helpful guidance and flowchart on what to do if you believe you may have covid.

Students with Disabilities Provisions:  If you wish to request academic accommodations due to a disability, please contact the Disability Resources for Students Office (DRS), 011 Mary Gates Hall,, or 543-8924.  If you have a letter from DRS indicating that you have a disability that requires special accommodations, please present the letter to me.

Religious Accommodations. Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, can be seen here. Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form.

Maintaining a Respectful Learning Environment: This course will lead into discussion of controversial social and political topics.  Discussion should be open to a wide range of perspectives, and everyone should feel comfortable about participating.  We will facilitate learning if we engage discussion with respect and empathy for one another.  Contradictory views are encouraged, and can contribute to learning as long as everyone remains open to new information and willing to learn from people with different perspectives and life experiences.  Please avoid inflammatory, derogatory and insulting words and personal attacks. Such conduct inhibits learning and prevents the free exchange of ideas.  No one, not even your instructor and TAs, is perfect.  We all make mistakes and have the potential to learn from our mistakes.  We generally advise against using social media to comment negatively on individuals in this class.  If you have concerns or complaints, please communicate them to us.


Papers are due on Monday, November 20, to be submitted electronically via Turnitin no later than 11:59 pm.  They should be 5-8 pages in length, double-spaced.  State your name and your TA’s name at the top of the first page.  Give your paper a title, and number your pages. 

In this paper you are asked to examine a major contemporary human rights problem in a particular country. Your main goals are (1) to describe the problem, (2) identify the human rights being violated, and (3) suggest thoughtful recommendations for addressing the problem.  In this way, your paper will combine description, legal analysis, and policy recommendations.  Note that policy recommendations will often be connected to a discussion of the causes of the problem. 

The overall purpose of this exercise is to use a human rights perspective for understanding and seeking to remedy a severe social injustice. You are expected to fashion a coherent narrative, and to identify the most significant overall findings of your investigation. Those findings should be stated in the introduction of your essay, and reviewed in the conclusion.

The following instructions are intended to help you complete the necessary research for your paper. Once you have compiled the needed information, you still need to analyze and organize what you have learned in the form of a clear, cogent, and persuasive discussion meeting the objectives outlined above.

1. You first want to choose a topic and learn about it. For information, please consult one or more of the following sources.

    1. Amnesty International This page organizes information by country. Navigate your way to in-depth reports, available as PDFs, that you can use as the basis of your research. (In other words, don’t rely on the brief online summaries.)
    2. Human Rights Watch This page leads by various channels to HRW’s voluminous research.  Look for the in-depth reports, available as PDFs, that you can use for your research. (As before, don’t rely on brief online summaries.)
    3. American Civil Liberties Union Limited to the U.S. Choose a topic under the Issues tab. Click on “Reports” in the search box. Browse the links to find relevant reports.
    4. US State Department Country Reports Does not include the U.S.  Search by country on the right or below.

In addition, you may want to consult the annual world reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also available online.  Nexis Uni (UW restricted) will help you locate relevant news articles.  You may consult other sources if you wish.

Scholarly articles and journalistic accounts may help you acquire a deeper understanding of your topic.  To find such sources, I recommend using Google Scholar, Academic Search Complete, and/or the UW Libraries Search box.

2. You next want to identify the specific human rights that are being violated. Be alert to all the relevant human rights, and think about how violations of one human right can undermine others. I advise starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In many or most cases, this document will help you begin to identify and conceptualize the human rights in question.  But not always, and in that case, you should note the ways in which the UDHR ignores the relevant rights.

You also want to see whether the rights are enshrined in the national constitution and international human rights law.  Read the national constitution, and discuss what protections it does or does not promise for the rights in question.  You will find most constitutions on Click on “Constitutions” to see countries listed alphabetically.  (There are other ways of finding national constitutions online.)

Identify relevant UN human rights treaties, and describe how the rights are defined in those treaties. In most cases you should confine your attention to the “Core International Human Rights Instruments” listed here: In rare cases, you may want to consult this longer catalogue: Here is the portal to the UN page on international human rights law:

If you like, you can see whether the country you are studying has ratified the relevant UN treaties.  This website shows you which major global human rights each country has ratified:  In most cases, this will be enough information, but if you want to track down ratification information about other treaties, visit . A country has ratified a treaty if there is a date appearing in the “Accession, Succession, Ratification” column.

Optional:  If the country you are studying is located in Europe, Africa, or the Americas, you might also like to consult the relevant regional human rights treaty – the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, or the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  How does the regional human rights treaty address (or fail to address) the issue in question?  If you want to learn whether the country has ratified the relevant regional human rights treaty, you can consult ratification lists for Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Again, this is optional.

Important:  Although we want you to identify the international human rights law provisions relevant to your topic, you should (in most cases) convey this information briefly and efficiently in your paper. This important information should (in most cases) take up relatively little text. 

Note: Some of you may choose to write about abuses committed by insurgent groups or rebel armies.  Though such organizations do not ratify international treaties, human rights law may still be relevant to evaluating their conduct.  You should refer to the Universal Declaration and any treaties that seem relevant.  Moreover, insurgent organizations, like states, are governed by the law of armed conflict.  You may therefore want to consult Articles 6-8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, viewable here:

3. Finally, you want to develop policy recommendations for the problem. Depending on the nature of the problem, your recommendations may be addressed to governments (or insurgent groups), social groups, national citizens, international actors, and/or human rights organizations. To develop your recommendations, think through the nature and causes of the problem, the responsible parties, and the kinds of actions, reforms, and transformations needed to provide an effective and durable remedy. Try to be thoughtful, practical, critical, and constructive. Show that you have thought carefully about the problem, and have cogent advice to offer the relevant parties. This is your chance to bring your learning and wisdom to bear in a helpful manner.

You must document sources for all specific information provided in your essay.  You may use either footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references that refer to a bibliography on the back page.  Use a standard format (e.g., Chicago or MLA) and be consistent.  Your citation should include enough information to identify the source clearly.  Subsequent citations to the same report should be abbreviated.  Examples:

  1. Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Like I’m Drowning”: Children and Families Sent to Harm by the US ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program, January 2021, p. 81.
  2. HRW, “Like I’m Drowning,” 42.
  3. International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), art. 3.
  4. CERD, art. 9.

Helpful information on citation practices are provided by the POLS/LSJ/JSIS Writing Center and the UW Library.


(subject to revision)



Wednesday, September 27: Introduction (no readings)

The Idea of Human Rights as Reflected in Local, National, and International Rights Charter

Friday, September 29:

  • US Declaration of Independence (1776).
  • Frederick Douglass, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852) (excerpt)
  • Start reading the US Constitution. (See Mon. Oct. 2 assignment.)

What does the US Declaration of Independence have to say about human rights?  How does the declaration tie human rights to a theory of legitimate government?  How does it tie human rights to a theory of just revolution? Why, for Frederick Douglass, are American celebrations of the Declaration of Independence a source of bitterness? Are his reflections still relevant today? How should we read the US Declaration in light of Douglass’s reflections.

Monday, October 2:

  • US Constitution.  Read as closely as you like, but pay most attention to provisions relating to rights, including Article I, Sections 9 and 10; Article III, Sections 2 and 3; Article IV, Section 4; Article VI; Amendments 1 through 10 (the “Bill of Rights”), 13 through 15 (the “Civil War Amendments”), and 19 (granting women the right to vote).

Look for provisions that uphold rights in the U.S. Constitution.  Notice how the Constitution has changed over time.  What historical provisions negated or betrayed human rights?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. Constitution as a possible guarantee of democracy and individual rights?

Wednesday, October 4:

How does the UN Charter provide support for human rights?  Does it also undermine human rights?  What historical process led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?  Is there an underlying principle that grounds the rights asserted in the Declaration?  How do the rights asserted in the Declaration relate to each other?  How does the Declaration differ from the US Bill of Rights?  Does it assert too many rights?  Too few?

Friday, October 6: 

We will continue discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Idea of Universal Human Rights

Monday, October 9:

  • Maurice Cranston, “Human Rights, Real and Supposed” (1967)
  • Jamie Mayerfeld, “Socioeconomic Rights” (2016)

Should human rights include economic, social and cultural rights?

Wednesday October 11

  • American Anthropological Association, “Statement on Human Rights” (1947)
  • Jamie Mayerfeld, “The Relativist Challenge” (2016)
  • Makau Mutua, “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights” (2001) (excerpt)
  • China's Charter 08

Are human rights universal, or culturally specific?  Do they, or can they, become a vehicle for Western imperialism? Should the definition of human rights vary across different societies?

Customary International Law

Friday, October 13:

  • Statute of the International Court of Justice (1945), Art. 38
  • Mark Janis, Introduction to International Law, 3rd ed. (1999), excerpts on customary international law and customary international law

What are the sources of international law?  What is customary international law?  What qualifies a norm for the status of customary international law, and who decides?  Why do we need customary international law?  What is the power, and what are the limits, of international human rights law?

Monday, October 16:

  • Filartiga v. Peña-Irala, 630 F. 2d 876, US Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, 1980

Judge Kaufman faced two questions in this case. The first was whether he should hear the case at all. The second was whether the alleged torture by the defendant was a violation of international law. How did Judge Kaufman answer these two questions? How is his opinion about torture an illustration of customary international law reasoning?

Treaty Law and the UN Human Rights Treaties

Wednesday, October 18

  • SKIM: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (1965), Preamble and Articles 1 through 7
  • Gay J. McDougall, “Toward a Meaningful International Regime: The Domestic Relevance of International Efforts to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination” (1997)

How does treaty law differ from customary international law?  What are the stages in which treaty law is formed?  What is the legal significance of the CERD?  How does the CERD go beyond the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Is it more demanding than the U.S. Constitution, and if so how? Do you think the United States is in compliance with the CERD? Why or why not? 

Friday, October 20. Continued discussion of the CERD.

Monday, October 23.

  • Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, US Supreme Court (2023) (excerpt)

Do race-based affirmative action policies violate the right against racial discrimination? What answers do the majority and minority opinions reach in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, and why? Which position do you find more persuasive, and why? What view on this issue is implied by the CERD? Why is the CERD not mentioned in the US Supreme Court opinions?

Wednesday, October 25. Continued discussion of racial discrimination, affirmative action, the US Supreme Court, and the CERD.

**Friday, October 27: MIDTERM EXAM**

Mass Persecutions and Penal Colonies in Xinjiang, China

Monday, October 30.

Why is the Chinese government detaining large numbers of people in Xinjiang province?  How does it seek to defend the policy?  How would you describe its surveillance practices, and how do they enable mass detentions?  How does China’s political system make these actions possible? How has the abuse of Uighurs and become entwined with economic production? (Optional: Darren Byler video essay on exploitation of Uyghur workers)

Wednesday, November 1. Continued discussion of Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

**Friday, November 3. Guest lecture by Mutallip Anwar and Darren Byler.**

 Women’s Human Rights

Monday, November 6. 

  • Manvir Singh, “How Dowries are Fuelling a Femicide Epidemic” (2023)

Why does violence against women persist in India and elsewhere? What were the factors that led to the murder of Neeti? Should we think of violence against women as a human rights problem, and if so, how? Does a human rights frame limit our understanding of violence against women?

Wednesday, November 8. Continued discussion of women’s human rights.

Friday, November 10. No class: Veterans Day Holiday

The Climate Crisis and Human Rights

Monday, November 13.

How serious is the climate crisis?

**Wednesday, November 15:  We will hear a guest Lecture by Enoka Herat of the ACLU of Washington, on Racial Discrimination in U.S. Immigration Law and Policy**

Friday, November 17. We will continue our discussion of the climate crisis and climate injustice.

How is the climate crisis bound up with questions of justice? What are just and unjust ways of addressing the climate crisis?

**Monday, November 20. Your research papers are due today.**  In lecture we continue discussing the climate crisis and human rights.

What are the best policies to address the climate crisis? What political strategies can lead government to adopt effective climate action?

Wednesday, November 22.

What are promising avenues for international action to address the climate crisis?  

The Law of War and Crimes of War

Monday, November 27

  • Peter John Rowe, “Law of War,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia (2018)
  • Clive Baldwin, "How Does International Humanitarian Law Apply in Israel and Gaza?" Human Rights Watch (2023)
  • For more Human Rights Watch information about the Israel-Gaza War, please visit this site.
  • International Law Documents on the Law of War:
  • Martens Clause (1899)
  • International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (1996), paragraph 78
  • 1907 Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Articles 22-28
  • 1949 Geneva Conventions, Common Article 3
  • 1949 Geneva Contentions, Grave Breaches Provisions
  • 1977 Geneva Protocol I, Articles 48-51

What connection, if any, is there between the ancient tradition of the law of war and the more recent tradition of human rights law?  What are the core principles of the law of war?  Why should states heed restraints on the conduct of war? 

Wednesday, November 29

What is the mission and structure of the International Criminal Court (ICC)? What crimes is the ICC authorized to punish?

Friday, December 1

Were the United States’ aerial campaigns in Syria in compliance with the law of war?  Has the United States found loopholes in the law of war that allow it to inflict “permissible” devastation on civilians?  Should we try to improve the law of war?  Should we leave law of war reasoning behind?

Monday, December 4.

What is the historical background to Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022?  What violations of international humanitarian law has Russia committed in its invasion of Ukraine?

**Wednesday, December 6.  Guest lecture by Sophia Wilson, Associate Professor of Political Science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and President of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies.**

Friday, December 8

Continued discussion of war crimes in the Russia-Ukraine War.

**Final Exam on Wednesday, December 13, 8:30-10:20 am.**


Catalog Description:
Studies the international human rights movement in its legal and political context. Focuses on institutions which influence, enable, and constrain the international promotion of human rights. Offered: jointly with POL S 368.
GE Requirements Met:
Diversity (DIV)
Social Sciences (SSc)
Last updated:
July 11, 2024 - 2:24 pm