Human Rights Reading List & Recommendations

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I consider myself very lucky to have a BA degree in one of my favorite concepts – human rights. It was a privilege to spend my undergraduate career studying such a complex, inspiring, and ever-relevant subject. Really, the world needs more human rights expertise and more individuals dedicated to upholding them. One of the most fundamental ways that my human rights education impacted me was by introducing me to the “works” – all of the thought-provoking texts and books that formed the backbone of my degree (and boosted my passion for human rights defense).

So – today I’m bringing y’all a short & sweet list of some relevant human rights reads. Some I was introduced to via my academic courses*; others I’ve acquired since**. All of them are worth your time and mental/emotional energy.

*Disclaimer: Many of these are academic texts! They’re peer-reviewed and well-cited (great) but also tend toward the dense/slightly dry side (not so great). Still, I wouldn’t recommend them if I didn’t think the analysis wasn’t exceptional.

**Disclaimer 2: I’m not claiming to have read all of these cover to cover; there’s a reason I’m not reviewing each of these. I use the fundamental texts for reference & overview purposes. With others I’ve read sections and chunks, along with some citation review, and, in my opinion, have enough of a feel for the quality of writing and analysis to recommend them for those interested in possibly reading them straight through.

Without further ado:

The Big Picture: Textbooks & Fundamentals

  • Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, 2006, by Geoffrey Robertson. This is a solid pick for a foundational human rights history & philosophy text. Robertson is a human rights lawyer, and brings his sharp wit to the legal history of human rights. Clocking in at 700 pages, it covers the history of crimes against humanity from Nuremberg to the International Criminal Court to the war in Iraq. There is some legal detail in this work that could take effort to understand for those without a legal background, but even still, Robertson’s historical insight is enough to warrant at least a skim.
  • Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice: Third Edition, 2013, by Jack Donnelly. This is perhaps a less legalistic look at the most basic human rights concepts, documents, and philosophies. Donnelly emphasizes cross-cultural analysis of rights and their practices, and takes an interdisciplinary approach to the debates surrounding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Economic Development

  • Development as Freedom, 1999, by Amartya Sen. Sen’s Nobel winner argues that freedom must both be a means and to sustainable economic development in the 21st century. While not everyone may agree with his assertion that free-market capitalism is still the most fundamental way to liberate all people, his arguments are worth more than a cursory glance and provide nice context for more radical arguments outside of the neoliberal, capitalist paradigm.

Group Rights & Cultural Relativism and Difference

  • The Rights of Minority Cultures, 1995, edited by Will Kymlicka. I appreciate the collection compiled here – from case studies on immigration to theoretical analyses of group/cultural rights and what that even means. This was a text I referenced consistently in a philosophy of rights courses, and it’s incredibly timely in the context of 21st century human rights discourses – to what extent to groups and cultures have rights? How should minority groups achieve representation, politically and culturally? There are no straightforward answers.

Gender and Sexuality

  • Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives, 1994, edited by Rebecca Cook. This is a particularly in-depth look at gender dynamics within international human rights law, with special consideration of gender within specific cultural contexts. How do overarching global laws apply to women in specific cultures, and at differing levels of government? One of the most important takeaways from my gender & rights courses is that ‘women’ as a categorization of similar people with similar needs and experiences, worldwide, is reductive and does a disservice to all women. Cook and other contributors seek to make all of the complexities of women’s human rights more clear.
  • Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, 1999, edited by Susan Moller Okin. I include this short collection of essays not because I think each essay is high quality, or that I agree with many of the premises here, but because this is an accessible, fairly easy to follow introduction to cultural issues surrounding gender. It’s ripe for debate, and even though at this point in 2018 it’s a touch dated, I highly recommend it for a basic introduction to the group rights issues touched on in The Rights of Minority Cultures, mentioned above.
  • Sexuality, Health, and Human Rights, 2008, by Correa, Petchesky, and Parker. This is probably the most complex work of theory included in this list – but it’s also one of the most recent additions to the rights & sexuality discourse of the 21st century. Chock full of interdisciplinary analysis and a justice-focused approach to sexual rights and expression, reproductive health, and the family, this one is worth a glance. Take it a couple of sections or chapters a time – the theory here is high-level and will need some serious consideration.


  • East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”, 2016, by Philippe Sands. Unfortunately, genocide is one of the most urgent and historical human rights atrocities, and where human rights discourses and documents find their modern roots. This work explores the history of the concept of crimes against humanity through the stories of humanitarian law’s earliest thinkers and proponents, including Sands’ own grandfather, which makes this striking work feel a bit like a memoir. It’s on my TBR for this year and I’m looking forward to it immensely.
  • A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, 2000, by Samantha Power. Power, former US Ambassador to the UN, focuses on 20th century genocides/human rights violations  and their international responses (and failures to respond), including in Rwanda, Iraq, Cambodia, Turkey, the Balkans, etc. The content included is well-researched and thorough, but much has been made of Power’s failure to document the United States’ complicity in many of these crimes and others she does not analyze. It may smell of politics, but Power’s otherwise excellent analysis is a solid addition to the genocide & crimes against humanity historical discourse.
  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, 1998, by Philip Gourevitch. There are many striking, unforgettable works about specific genocides, their stories, their atrocities, their survivors. For those who may not have the depth of knowledge about genocide, Rwanda is a good place to start. A genocide of the modern era, Gourevitch documents the 100 killing days, the lack of international attention, and the details of being surrounded by death in stunning, beautiful prose. The humanitarian perspective here makes this a compulsory read.


I know, I know – this doesn’t even begin to touch on so many human rights topics & atrocities worthy of our attention. But for those in need of a primer, a place to start in a sea of great works, I hope these suggestions are useful.

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