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What Are Human Rights Studies?

Majoring in human rights studies (or supplementing a major with a program) provides a sturdy foundation for work in that field. Human rights studies tend to be interdisciplinary and include a variety of subjects. Together, the courses provide education on history, human rights, law, and pathways for improving human rights around the world. By participating in a human rights studies program, you can be prepared for a career in human rights.

What is taught in human rights studies?

Human rights studies are interdisciplinary, which means you take a course blend from many departments within a school. You’ll choose from classes in departments like:

Anthropology – This is the scientific study of humans, human behavior, and society. Social anthropology examines patterns of behavior. Cultural anthropology looks at cultural norms and values. Considering human rights are inherent to all humans, it makes sense to study some anthropology.

History – Future human rights workers need history classes to understand the context of human rights. This includes patterns of discrimination and histories of global powers.

Political science – Political science is a social science. It addresses systems of governance, power, and political thoughts and behavior. Politics has a huge impact on the state of human rights.

Law – Courses within a school’s law department cover topics like law enforcement, human rights law, and international law.

Sociology – Sociology is the study of human social relationships and institutions. It covers a range of topics like family, religion, race, and class. Classes in this subject provide important context for human rights.

Religion – Human rights and religion have been linked for centuries, so it’s important for someone in a human rights studies program to know about religion’s role and influence.

What a student learns in human rights studies

Every program is different, but when you go into human rights studies, you’ll be well-equipped for future endeavors in the field. You’ll be educated on things like:

  • The theories and vocabulary of human rights
  • The history of human rights violations and abuse, such as genocides, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity
  • The connection between human rights theory, law, and practice
  • The role of human rights workers and defenders
  • How to analyze human rights literature
  • How to discuss human rights on a local, national, and global scale

The goal of human rights studies is to prepare students for the world of human rights. Not all programs are created equal, but even the most excellent programs can only teach you so much. It’s up to you to enhance your learning with independent research and outside experiences like internships or volunteering.

Human rights studies programs

Human rights studies include concentrations, graduate degrees, and doctorates. Some well-known examples are the Human Rights MA from Columbia University, the Human Rights MA from Curtin University, and the Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights from Yale Law School. Let’s take a closer look at that last program:

Yale’s Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights

Yale Law School offers the Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights for undergraduates. This particular program is not a major. Students can only put two of their electives in this program toward their major requirements. The Schell Center for International Human Rights supports the program. Students (who are called Scholars) must meet certain academic requirements and attend events like weekly dinners in their sophomore and junior years. There are six required courses, as well as four electives, a gateway lecture course, and a senior colloquium.

Electives are chosen from existing courses and can vary year to year. Electives could include classes such as “Race, Politics, and the Law,” “Environmental Justice in South Asia,” “Moral Choices In Politics,” and “Mass Atrocities in Global Politics.” Scholars are expected to select courses that allow them to engage directly with human rights discourse and grow their knowledge.

During the program, Scholars also receive academic, summer, and post-graduate advising. The Schell Center also offers limited financial support for summer internships or research projects. To graduate from the program, Scholars must complete a capstone.

What happens next?

When you’ve completed a human rights studies program or degree, you’ll have an arsenal of skills and knowledge for a human rights career. This includes work in specific fields like advocacy, humanitarian services, economic development, policy development, law, public policy, and more. When you’re looking at human rights studies, consider if you already have a field you’re passionate about. Choose your courses based on that. As an example, if you’re most interested in human rights law, focus your electives in that area. If you’re passionate about women’s rights, look for gender-focused courses. A human rights studies program sets you up for success no matter what kind of human rights career you want to pursue.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.