How should U.S. policy address human rights?
Third edition. December 2016.

Human rights have been central to political struggles and social movements throughout history. Individuals have organized, spoken out, and even risked their lives to demand that their rights be respected. Today, it is generally accepted around the world that governments have a responsibility to ensure and protect certain rights for their people. Yet while the general principle of human rights has been broadly accepted, human rights abuses persist and questions about the subject remain highly contested. These questions have significant implications for the policy decisions of governments and ultimately for the lives of individuals.

Using readings, case studies, and primary sources, students examine the evolving role that human rights has played in international politics and explore the current debate on U.S. human rights policy.


Students trace the origins and history of international human rights, exploring the effects of events such as World War II and the Nuremberg Trials, the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cold War, and decolonization. They also consider human rights in practice today, exploring how different actors—such as national governments, the UN, international courts, NGOs, and individuals—influence human rights around the world. Students consider current challenges in human rights, and also examine five case studies that highlight major controversies.

Preview this unit. Preview includes the Table of Contents for the Student Text and the Teacher Resource Book as well as a student reading excerpt and one lesson plan.


Human Rights in Action

This introductory exercise helps students define human rights. Students assess the role of human rights in cases from the United States and around the world, and are challenged to consider whether human rights are being violated and who is responsible for protecting them.

Key Concepts in Human Rights

Utilizing short videos of human rights scholars and practitioners, students explore fundamental concepts in human rights and consider the challenges of prioritizing rights.

Promoting Human Rights through Social Movements

Students consider the role of social movements in promoting human rights and assess creative forms of expression. Students explore source material such as protest songs from the Arab Spring, paintings inspired by Black Lives Matter, murals in Montreal for indigenous culture and justice, and more.

Human Rights Controversies

Students analyze primary source documents to explore in greater depth the controversies and fundamental questions about human rights presented in the five case studies in the reading.

The Options Role Play

Students engage in a simulation that brings the debate on U.S. human rights policy to life. Students assume the roles of advocates for four different policy options.

Taking Action on Human Rights

Students articulate their opinions on U.S. human rights policies based personal values, evidence, and political understanding. Students work in groups to design an organization to address concerns about human rights and create a visual publicity tool for their organization.

Assessment Using Documents

Students use primary sources to respond to the question of whether the United States is an international human rights leader. This documents-based exercise can be used to assess students' comprehension, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of relevant sources and this curriculum unit.


Supplemental Resources

Additional reference material for added context and support.


Burke, Roland. Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights. 4th ed. Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, 2012.

Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002.

Ignatieff, Michael. American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Lauren, Paul Gordon. The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Provides information on human rights conditions around the world organized by country, topic, and international campaign.
Provides information and current reports on economic and social rights conditions around the world.
Promotes democratic change and focuses on civil and political rights
Provides reporting on a compilation of blogs, images, videos, and other forms of citizen media created by individuals around the world.
Provides current reports on human rights conditions around the world. Reports are organized by topic and location.
Provides information about responses to systematic or widespread violations of human rights.
Provides information about UN human rights treaties, conferences, courts, and major topics in human rights.
The United States prepares yearly human rights reports on all members of the United Nations.
Example of a regional initiative that promote human rights.
Example of a regional initiative that promote human rights.
Example of a regional initiative that promote human rights.
Example of a regional initiative that promote human rights.
Example of a regional initiative that promote human rights.
Back to top