Human Rights Major

The Human Rights Major explores the theory and practice of human rights through sustained interdisciplinary inquiry, experiential learning, and capstone research projects.

Students examine fundamental conceptual issues around human rights through a variety of disciplinary perspectives in courses from the arts and humanities to the law and the social and biological sciences, engaging with the problematics of human rights practice to formulate their own critical perspectives on human rights as a field of knowledge.

The major offers a unique opportunity at the University of Chicago for students to integrate theory with practice with its strong experiential focus. 

Questions about the Human Rights Major can be directed to Associate Instructional Professor Ben Laurence


Students must complete a total of 12 courses (1100 credits): 

  • International Human Rights Law and Practice
  • Human Rights Methods
  • 1 Foundational Course in the Humanities (HUM)
  • 1 Foundational Course in the Social Sciences
  • 6 Electives (4 Grouped in a Stream)
  • 2 Quarter BA Thesis Workshop or Practice Capstone Workshop (Intensive Track)

Students are also required to undertake a human rights field or research experience and to write a BA thesis or capstone project.

  • Human Rights Field or Research Experience
  • BA Thesis Workshop or Practice Capstone

Advising & Declaring a Major

To declare a major, the student must meet once with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Ben Laurence, to plan a pathway through the major, and receive his signature on a Human Rights Major Plan form, which they then deposit with their college advisor. All majors must sign up for the list, the main channel of communication for those pursuing a degree in human rights to receive information.

Double Majoring

Double majoring in human rights is permitted. The same courses may be used to satisfy the requirements for both majors. Furthermore, students may petition to substitute the BA thesis workshop of their other major for the Human Rights BA Thesis Workshop, provided their thesis involves human rights.                                                     

Transitional Year

Since AY 2022-2023 will be the first year of the major, we are modifying requirements for older cohorts of students. Current 4th years, graduating in Spring Quarter 2023, are not required to take Human Rights Methods or to complete the fieldwork requirement. Current 3rd years, graduating in Spring Quarter of 2024 are also exempt from the requirement to take Human Rights Methods (but are still required to complete a fieldwork experience).

Required Courses

International Human Rights Law and Practice

This course introduces students to the legal architecture of international human rights law. While the legal framing of rights emphasizes universality and the common good, its application reflects the historical compromises and political uncertainties of the times. This course will explore the tensions that are produced when politics meets 'the law' and examine the issues, actors, doctrines and practices that make up the human rights project. Students are encouraged to take this course in Autumn Quarter of their second year and are required to complete it by Autumn Quarter of their third year.

Human Rights Methods

This course prepares students to relate the academic study of human rights to human rights practice. It will provide training in human rights monitoring, analysis, documentation (including the use of photography and videography), the use of public information and records, intervention and capacity building, trauma informed research, effective storytelling in human rights advocacy, effective interview techniques, stakeholder mapping, statistical analysis in R, mapping technologies and GIS.  Importantly, this course will also address the ‘ethics’ side of field work, including principles of do no harm as well as self-care, which is critical to human rights work. Students are required to take this course before completing their human rights research or field experience, which is often over the summer quarter of their third year.

Foundational Courses

Foundational courses are designed to introduce students to key disciplinary, cross disciplinary and methodological approaches to the study of human rights. Students will take 1 foundational course in the humanities (HUM), and 1 foundational course in the social sciences (SS).

Students may petition to use courses in the Human Rights Study Abroad in Vienna program to meet the humanities and social science Foundational requirement. They may also petition to use Human Rights in World Civilizations 1 and 2 (if they do not use it to meet their Civ requirements).

Foundational courses can also be used to satisfy elective requirements, but only if they are not used to satisfy the foundational course requirement. 

  • Human Rights: Philosophical Foundations (HUM)
  • Artistic Expressions of Human Rights (HUM)
  • Human Rights in Literature (HUM)
  • Human Rights: History and Theory (SS)
  • Human Rights: Sociological Approaches (SS)
  • Human Rights: Anthropological Perspectives (SS)
  • Health and Human Rights (HUM or SS)
  • Human Rights: Contemporary Issues (HUM or SS) 

Elective Courses

Elective courses are designed to allow students to develop expertise in particular human rights topics or issues. Any HMRT designated course satisfies an elective requirement. However, students must choose 4 of their 6 elective courses from within a single stream. This is intended to provide a depth and coherence to the selection of electives.

You can find on the Pozen Family Center website curriculum page which stream each HMRT designated course is in (courses are currently being coded; this information should be available soon). Note that students may also petition to create their own topical stream of elective courses.

Human Rights in Theory (THEORY)

Courses that explore the theoretical foundations of human rights, including topics such as the relation of human rights to justice, the state, and law, or the role of human dignity and the concept of the human being. Sample courses would include Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, Advanced Topics in the Philosophy of Human Rights, Anti-Colonial Thought, and Justice at Work. Courses in this stream are marked (THEORY) on the Pozen Center Website. 

Human Rights in Crisis (CRISIS)

Courses that explore emerging “crises” in both the theory and practice human rights, including rising authoritarianism and the erosion of democracy, climate crisis and human rights, or refugee crises. Sample courses would include: Migrant, Refugee, and Citizen, Militant Democracy and the Preventative State, and The Politics of Law: Human Rights in Crisis. Courses in this stream are marked (Crisis) on the Pozen Center Website.

Human Rights in Context (CONTEXT)

Courses that explore human rights by contextualizing them either historically or regionally.  Sample courses would include Human Rights in Mexico, Human Rights in the Middle East, Cold War Human Rights, American Legal History, and The History of LGBTQ Rights. Courses in this stream are marked (Context) on the Pozen Center Website.

Human Rights in Transition (TRANSITION)

Courses that explore questions of transitional justice, and post-conflict conditions, including peace and reconciliation, memorialization, and reparations. Sample courses would include, Ethnic Conflict in Comparative Perspective, Reimagining Justice: the Chicago Police Torture Memorial, and Challenging Transitional Justice. Courses in this stream are marked (Transition) on the Pozen Center Website.

The Right to Have Rights (R2HR)

Courses that focus on exclusion and new and emerging regimes of rights, including the claims of immigrant rights, indigenous rights, gender and sexual rights, and the rights of incarcerated persons. Sample courses would include: Incarceration and Justice, Indigenous Rights and Capitalism, and The Transnational Migration Regime. Courses in this stream are marked (R2HR) on the Pozen Center Website.

Human Rights Field or Research Experience

In addition to required coursework, all majors will undertake either a human rights field experience or a human rights research experience funded by the Pozen Center.

Field Experience

For a field experience, students apply for competitive funding usually during Winter Quarter of their third year to work with a human rights partner organization identified by the Pozen Center as offering strong learning opportunities, usually over the summer after the third year. Relevant organizations include international human rights NGOs, locally based NGOs, government bodies and think tanks. The host organization and student, with the guidance of Pozen faculty and staff, establish Learning Agreements for each placement. The host organization and student complete two evaluations over the course of the placement. A list of current partnerships is available on the Pozen Center website. The Human Rights Internship Program is one way for human rights majors to fulfill the fieldwork requirement.

Research Experience

For a research experience, students will apply to work with a University of Chicago faculty member who has an ongoing human rights project. For example, one might apply to work with a faculty member on the construction of a digital library of human rights documents, or with a faculty member who is conducting research on the effects of long-term sentencing on mass incarceration. Please consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies Ben Laurence to learn more about these opportunities as they arise. 

BA Thesis or Practice Capstone Project

Two tracks are available to fourth year students: the BA Thesis Track and the Practice Capstone Track.

BA Thesis Track

Students on the BA Thesis track write a BA Thesis that involves human rights. The student must find a supervisor for their thesis in Spring Quarter of third year, submitting a thesis proposal signed by their supervisor to the Director of Undergraduate Studies by the end of the Spring Quarter. In Autumn and Winter Quarter of their fourth year, the students must enroll in the Human Rights BA Thesis Workshop. This is a workshop which meets every other week, where students will receive research training, attend panels, and share their evolving thesis research with their peers and the workshop’s instructor. For students who are double majoring in a major with a thesis workshop, the student may petition to have this workshop count for satisfying the BA workshop requirement, provided the thesis involves human rights. This document offers additional guidance for writing the BA essay.

Practice Capstone Project Track

The Practice Capstone Track is available only by application, to be submitted in Winter Quarter of Year 3 to the Director of Undergraduate Studies Ben Laurence.  The application will be available at the start of Winter Quarter, and due by the end of the 7th week. Students who are approved will propose and undertake a practical project in year 3 that makes a real intervention in human rights. This application will ask you to envision a human rights project that you can complete, with the support of the Director of Practice and the financial support of the center, in your 4th year. Examples might include the preparation of an educational website and advocacy kit on some human rights topic; the development of an app to track what government benefits those undergoing the asylum process are entitled to; multi-media installations as part of a consciousness-raising campaign; or a white paper research on some topic of immediate use to practitioners. Creative ideas and out-of-the-box thinking are welcome! Those accepted will enroll in the Practice Capstone Workshop, which meets biweekly in Autumn Quarter and Winter Quarter of year 4. Under the supervision of the workshop instructor, the students on the Practice Capstone Track will work with the Director of Practice to realize their project. 

General Education

It is recommended but not required that students who major in Human Rights take HMRT 10100-10200 Human Rights in World Civilizations I-II to fulfill their general education requirement in civilization studies.


Human Rights Requirement Checklist 

You must complete this form in consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies if you wish to major in human rights.

BA Essay Project Approval Form

You must complete this form if you are writing a BA essay.

Joint BA essay form

You must complete this form if you are a double major who is writing your BA essay on a human rights topic in your other major.

Course Petition

You may complete this form to petition to have a non-HMRT course counted towards one of your Human Rights Major requirements. If you do so, please email this form along with the syllabus for the course to the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Stream Petition

If you are completing your elective requirements in a focused area, but none of the existing streams capture this well, then you may submit this petition to create a new boutique stream.

Fieldwork Equivalent Petition

If you have completed something that might count as your Fieldwork or Research Experience that is not a Pozen Internship, please fill out this form petitioning to have it count.

Practice Intensive Track Application

The Practice Intensive Capstone track is by application only. If you want to apply, please fill out this form proposing a project by March 1st of Year 3. You will be notified whether your project has been approved by the end of the first week of Spring Quarter.