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May 18, 2022


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Can the concept of human rights be applied across borders or are rights culturally specific? Is it realistic, or even desirable, to aim at an international system based on universal principles of justice? This course, Rights and justice in international relations, takes a critical view of the assumption that 'rights are a good thing' and looks at the problems that arise when they are applied in the international arena.


This course is about rights and rights claims, and the idea of implementing justice in the international sphere based on the concept of rights. It is agreed by most people that ‘rights are a good thing’ and in many respects they are. However, this course deliberately takes a critical view. It seeks to examine closely why rights are a good thing and highlight some of the problems associated with rights. In this way, we hope that the sense in which rights are still, ultimately, ‘a good thing’ can be clarified and sharpened, and the valid reasons for rights thereby strengthened. The belief in rights based on a moral assertion of common humanity that we all share is not self-justifying, and it needs to be located within the complex political field of international relations. In Section 2, we look briefly at some aspects of the development of internationally recognized human rights as expressed in the UN Charter and 1948 Declaration. Section 3 and Section 4 consider rights and justice by elucidating the meaning of the terms and some of the debates about how best to conceptualize them. In Section 5 and Section 6, the working definitions previously outlined are used to think about the impact that notions of rights and justice can have on international relations. In the concluding section (Section 7), we consider the future of rights and justice in the international realm.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:
  • Understand the different interpretations of internationally recognized notions of rights and justice
  • Give examples of implementing justice in an international sphere
  • Investigate questions in international studies
  • Analyze the different agencies of change in the international system.

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Open University UK