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History of Human Rights


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


Human rights are since their ‘birth’ essentially contested concepts. Recently, they became subject of intense debates in historiography. Sam Moyns provocative book The Last Utopia (2010) made particularly clear how important it is to investigate precisely which meaning human rights have been given in a particular context. Moyn argues that it is only since the 1970s that human rights have been defined as liberal freedoms based on individual dignity and protected by international law. Moyn therefore rejects long-term histories of human rights traced back e.g. to the French Revolution. Moreover, he relativizes the importance of human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War and during processes of decolonization. Of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made in 1948 and the concept has since then been used, but not yet on the scale and with the same meaning as it has had since the 1970s. During this seminar we critically evaluate Moyns perspective by discussing related literature with other theoretical underpinnings, alternative methods and new empirical findings, and by applicating acquired insights to case studies.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following: in the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identitieson political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800;

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following: in the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities on international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture;

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  • 13) Will acquire insights into historiographical controversies in the historiography of human rights

  • 14) Will gain research practice in contributing to historiography from a case study approach

  • 15) (ResMA only) Will gain research practice in contributing to historiography with new theories and/or methods


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Tutorials: 14 x 2 hours = 28 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 72 hours

  • Assignment(s): 180 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, (10), 11-14, (15)

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 13-14, (15)

  • Assignment 1 (review literature)
    measured learning objectives: 4, 8, 13, (15)

  • Assignment 2 (peer review)
    measured learning objectives: 9


  • Written paper: 70 %

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Assignment 1: 5%

  • Assignment 2: 5%

  • Participation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficent.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Communication about practicalities of the course

  • Peer review

Reading list



Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Paul van Trigt