Postgraduate Module Descriptor

POLM077: The Politics of Human Rights

This module descriptor refers to the 2016/7 academic year.


NQF Level7
Credits30 ECTS Value15
Term(s) and duration

This module ran during term 2 (11 weeks)

Academic staff

Dr Andrew Schaap (Convenor)





Available via distance learning


Hannah Arendt (1906-1976), a German-born Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was one of the most important political thinkers of the twentieth century. As a stateless person herself, she wrote movingly of the plight of irregular migrants: that they had become superfluous human beings. As Arendt put it, ‘Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them.’ Consequently, it was precisely in the situation that they had been deprived of their citizenship and had nothing else to appeal to but their human rights, that these rights turned out to be illusory.

In this module we take Arendt’s influential discussion of the ‘right to have rights’ as a starting point for reflection on the politics of human rights today. We will examine how Arendt’s ideas have been taken up, for instance, in debates about border security, the refugee crisis, citizenship, political activism by irregular migrants, detention of asylum seekers, state violence and civil disobedience. We will focus, especially, on how two contemporary theorists (Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Rancière) have criticised and developed Arendt’s ideas in two different ways. On the one hand, Agamben draws on the notion of biopolitics to build on Arendt’s diagnosis of how stateless people are turned into disposable lives. On the other hand, Rancière develops the notion of dissensus to develop a constructive account of how marginalized people contest their situation by enacting their rights. You will be encouraged to bring your own research interests into the seminar and to pursue independent research on a human rights issue, drawing on concepts encountered in the module to develop novel lines of inquiry.

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