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MA Theory and Practice of Human Rights

Why we're great

  • Our Human Rights Centre is one of the UK's leading centres for the study of international human rights.
  • Join one of the largest and most effective human rights alumni networks in the world.
  • We have a broad range of modules enabling you to focus on the areas of human rights that interest you most.

Course options

Duration: 1 year
Start month(s): October
Location: Colchester Campus
Based in: Law (School of)
Fee (Home/EU): £6,950
Fee (International): £14,950

Duration: 2 years
Start month(s): October
Location: Colchester Campus
Based in: Law (School of)
Fee (Home/EU): £3,475
Fee (International): £7,475

Course enquiries

Telephone 01206 872719

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About the course

Our Human Rights Centre is one of the world’s oldest and most highly-respected environments for the multi-disciplinary study of human rights. Studying human rights at Essex will enable you to become a member of one of the world’s largest, most culturally diverse and professionally successful community of human rights students, practitioners and academics.

Our interdisciplinary course, MA Theory and Practice of Human Rights, examines the history, theoretical development and implementation of human rights. Beyond the practical problems of human rights lie many unresolved theoretical and philosophical issues. These form the basis of this course, which provides you with a solid grounding in fundamental human rights matters within:

  • Law
  • Politics
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology

Studying this course will enable you to undertake practical or legal work for human rights organisations.

Our interdisciplinary Human Rights Centre is the UK’s leading centre for the study of the theory and practice of international human rights, and has a worldwide reputation for research, teaching and practice. In February 2010, we were awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in recognition of our work in advancing human rights across the globe.

At Essex we specialise in commercial law, public law, and human rights law. We are top 20 in the UK for research excellence (REF 2014), and we are among the top 200 departments on the planet according to the QS World University rankings (2015).

This course is also available on a part-time basis.

Our expert staff

Our work has always been informed by human rights practice and our senior staff have held - and continue to occupy - key positions in the United Nations human rights and development fields. We have also conducted numerous cases in Strasbourg, establishing far-reaching precedents that have shaped the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

At Essex, our objective is to ensure you receive a rigorous academic education that also prepares you for working as a human rights advocate. Every member of our teaching team is a leading human rights academic, as well as a practitioner in the field.

Our team includes former UN Special Rapporteurs, members of UN treaty bodies, the UK member of the UN Human Rights Committee, a member of the Government’s new Advisory Group on Human Rights. We are also advisers to a range of international organisations (like the OHCHR, UNHCR and WHO), as well as to NGOs around the world, and litigators before national courts, regional human rights commissions and courts, international courts and tribunals, and the UN treaty bodies.

Specialist facilities

  • Participate in various legal competitions to hone your debating, mediation and negotiation skills
  • Work on key human rights projects at our Human Rights Clinic
  • Network at our student-run Law Society, Human Rights Society, and Bar Society, which provides legal advice to the Commonwealth Students’ Association (CSA)
  • Our Essex Street Law project is one of the first of its kind and is the primary pro-bono project provided by our Law Society
  • Volunteer at the Essex Law Clinic where you can work alongside practicing solicitors to offer legal advice to clients
  • Gain commercial awareness at our Business and Legal Advice Clinic
  • Join our Model United Nations society, which can improve your skills of argumentation, oral presentation and research
  • Take advantage of networking opportunities throughout the year with visiting law firms

We also offer a range of opportunities for working with projects associated with our Human Rights Centre:

  • Essex Transitional Justice Network
  • International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy
  • Human Rights in Iran Unit
  • Essex Autonomy Project
  • Detention, Rights and Social Justice Programme

Your future

Graduates of the MA courses within our Human Rights Centre go on to a variety of careers in the governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental sectors, and undertake further research.

Recent graduates of our MA Theory and Practice of Human Rights have found employment as:

  • Director of investigations for Malawi Human Rights Commission
  • A human rights officer for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • An experimental learning director for CIEE
  • A web writer for the British Red Cross
  • Grants Manger for the American Councils for International Education
  • A project officer for Relief International
  • Women and housing rights programme officer for the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE)

Other graduates now work for the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Save the Children, Shelter, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists.

We are first university in the UK to sign a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This creates internship and research opportunities for our postgraduate students and is based on our long-established expertise in international humanitarian law.

During the year, we hold a careers session for our students in which we reflect upon our own careers and how they have been built as well as those from former students. We are always available to discuss career options and if you are interested in a particular area of human rights, we can link you up with the relevant alumni to offer advice.

We also work with the university’s Employability and Careers Centre to help you find out about further work experience, internships, placements, and voluntary opportunities.

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Example structure

Postgraduate study is the chance to take your education to the next level. The combination of compulsory and optional modules means our courses help you develop extensive knowledge in your chosen discipline, whilst providing plenty of freedom to pursue your own interests. Our research-led teaching is continually evolving to address the latest challenges and breakthroughs in the field, therefore to ensure your course is as relevant and up-to-date as possible your core module structure may be subject to change.

For many of our courses you’ll have a wide range of optional modules to choose from – those listed in this example structure are, in many instances, just a selection of those available. Our Programme Specification gives more detail about the structure available to our current postgraduate students, including details of all optional modules.

Year 1

What are the founding principles of human rights? What perspectives and methodologies can you apply to human rights? And what are the important contemporary debates in the theory and practice of human rights? Gain answers to these questions, while acquiring methodological skills for future independent research.

Want to work as a human rights professional? Using the UN human rights mechanisms, learn the essential skills to become a human rights practitioner. Apply this knowledge practically through engagement with projects by our Human Rights Centre Clinic.

How do Islamic legal traditions impact on international human rights discourse? And on Muslim state practice? Study the debates surrounding Islam and universal human rights. Examine the diversity of perspectives surrounding human rights in Islamic thought and practice. Develop the tools for cross-cultural understanding and engagement.

How does the international system enhance the advancement of human rights? And how does it constrain it? Study the international system and its influence on human rights. Examine the role of foreign policy instruments in promoting human rights. Analyse how human rights can advance foreign policy goals by states.

What angle of human rights fascinates you? What do you want to study further, with support and guidance from the expert staff within our Human Rights Centre? The dissertation is your opportunity to build valuable research skills and in depth knowledge on a topic that interests and challenges you.

The field of security studies has become increasingly important over the last decade. While old conflicts are reigniting and new ones are emerging, scholars and decision-makers debate about changes to the concepts of security, the redundancy of military force, and the centrality of the state in order to face these ever-important issues.

Theories of justice are still being worked on and developed today. You question contemporary theories of justice through applying them to some of the most controversial issues dominating contemporary politics.

South Africa and the United States are two countries in which racial identity and conflict became peculiarly entwined with class formation and antagonisms. This module explores the complex relationship of race and class in South Africa and the US from the time of slavery through to the rise of racial segregation in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Which human rights are linguistic in nature? How do language rights qualify as human rights? What conflicts occur around language? Examine language issues in human rights. Understand the sociolinguistic approach to language use and speaker identity. Evaluate the latest and most important topics in language rights.

What impact does EU law have on human rights? What are the human rights aspects of EU rules for asylum and immigration? Examine the agreement on EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. Understand the scope and content of the EU’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights.

How does public international law apply to peace and field operations? What about international human rights law? Or the international law of armed conflict? Understand the institutional law of the United Nations. Examine foundational legal aspects of peace operations, as well as key unresolved legal issues.

What are the contemporary issues within international human rights law? How does the UN promote and protect human rights? Gain a critical and contextual introduction to international human rights law. Build your analytical skills in relation to the subject. Discuss current issues and events in group work.

What does it mean to be an international lawyer? Understand the founding principles of international laws. Apply the tools and techniques of legal reasoning to the international system. Understand how the system of international law works and form your own views through discussion of contemporary issues.

What are the nature of obligations relating to economic, social and cultural rights? How do it differ from civil and political rights? Understand the past, present and future of economic, social and cultural rights. Examine approaches to implementing these rights. Explore human rights and its impact in this field.

What protection does international law offer refugees and internally displaced persons? Examine legal definitions of refugee status. Understand the guarantees provided for such groups by international human rights law. Evaluate the limitations of such laws by states in Europe and North America.

What are the achievements of the European Convention on Human Rights? What are the challenges that it now faces? And the constraints? Examine the history of the Convention. Explore how the focus and methodology of the Court is now changing. Address the key states of the litigation of a case.

What does right to development mean? How does it relate to human rights treaties? What is a human rights-based approach to development? Study international human rights law, exploring theoretical and practical implications of linking human rights and development. Analyse specific human rights themes. Evaluate the role of governments and organisations.

What are the global standards set by the GATT/World Trade Organisation? And by World Bank policies? Examine relationships between human rights, international trade and foreign investment. Study legal issues, plus ethical, political and economic arguments on current topics. Evaluate cases to see the practical effect of linking trade and rights.

What are the human rights responsibilities of private companies? And what about public or private institutions financing projects aimed at world development? Evaluate principles regulating human rights and examine how they contrast with principles regulating multinational commercial interests. Consider real-life cases from both national and international courts.

What is the unconscious? And how does it influence the behaviour of groups? Explore how a psychoanalytic approach can illuminate the dynamics of groups and organisations. Understand the classic theories of Freud and Bion, then develop perspectives on how psychoanalytic ideas explain individual and group behaviour.

What psychological complexities are involved when working with clients whose human rights were violated? How do you - the professional - interact with them? Do wider contexts impact on psychological dimensions? Explore the psychosocial parameters of human rights violations. Examine issues, debates and literature on psychosocial perspectives of human rights.

Through exploring and addressing a range of theories and research on how people think and behave, you will gain a clear understanding of the topics social psychologists are interested in and their approaches to studying them.

How can feminist and queer theory be used to analyse sociological issues? What impact does gender and sexuality have on topics like kinship, globalisation, digital intimacies, and the body? Explore contemporary sociological developments in the study of gender, sexuality and intimacy.

How do you critically assess documents? What should you look for when analysing qualitative research? Learn the skills to critique documents based on their authenticity, representativity, validity, and meaning. Apply this knowledge to real-life case studies and class discussion.

How have human rights practices been socially created? What social change is likely in the future and how will that change take place? Do human rights vary across cultures? Do human rights offer a basis for rights which can transcend the nation state? How do they accommodate migration and global inequality? Study human rights from a sociological perspective, developing a historical, critical and cultural understanding of the major theories and concepts in light of these questions.

How are work and home life organised differently across the globe? Does gender add to this? Can we challenge our traditional understandings of work and home? As work helps to define your identity, explore the nature of both formal and informal work, using case studies from around the world.

How do we challenge our conventional understanding of crime? And what can we do about this? Examine the history of criminology and learn about the contemporary debates. Study topics like criminalisation, social deviance, and surveillance and punishment. Look ahead with analysis of new work by leading authors in the field.

How do we understand crime in our increasingly globalised world? And what about forms of control and criminal justice policy? Critically examine criminological thought on globalisation, migration, policy convergence, punishment, and crimes against the state.


  • You will be taught and supervised by our staff who are world leaders and experts in the field
  • Your MA will include five taught modules and a dissertation
  • We run activities including tours to European institutions, trips to Kosovo, Right Skills for Rights workshops, a seminar series and a celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


  • All modules on our courses take the form of take-home exams and essays
  • Modules from our Department of Government offer a formal sit-down examination


  • Your dissertation is of 15,000 to 16,000 words, and you are allocated a supervisor to cover a range of human rights topics

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UK entry requirements

A degree with an overall 2:1.

International and EU entry requirements

We accept a wide range of qualifications from applicants studying in the EU and other countries. Email for further details about the qualifications we accept. Include information in your email about the high school qualifications you have already completed or are currently taking.

IELTS entry requirements

IELTS 7.0 overall with a minimum component score of 5.5 except for 6.5 in writing

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Visit us

Open days

We host an Open Evening for those interested in postgraduate study with us. Here you’ll be able to discuss our courses with academics, tour the Campus and accommodation and get the answers to all your questions about studying at Essex. Find out more and book your place online.

We also hold several Open Days throughout the year so that you can visit our Colchester Campus and find out more. These Open Days are geared towards undergraduate applicants but whilst you won’t get specific information on your course, you’ll still be able to tour our Campus, meet our students and get a feel for life at Essex. You can get more information and book a place online.

If our dates don’t work for you then don’t worry, you can always book a campus and accommodation tour on a weekday to suit you. Just email to get booked in.

Virtual tours

If you live too far away to come to Essex (or have a busy lifestyle), no problem. Our 360 degree virtual tour allows you to explore the Colchester Campus from the comfort of your home. Check out our accommodation options, facilities and social spaces.


Our staff travel the world to speak to people about the courses on offer at Essex. We have a comprehensive list online so take a look and see if we’ll be near you in the future.


You can apply for our postgraduate courses online. You’ll need to provide us with your academic qualifications, as well as supporting documents such as transcripts, English language qualifications and certificates. You can find a list of necessary documents online, but please note we won’t be able to process your application until we have everything we need.

There is no application deadline but we recommend that you apply before 1 July for our taught courses starting in October. We aim to respond to applications within two weeks. If we are able to offer you a place, you will be contacted via email.

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Although great care is taken in compiling our course details, they are intended for the general guidance of prospective students only. The University reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of programmes, courses and other services, to discontinue programmes, courses and other services and to merge or combine programmes or courses, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University.

The full procedures, rules and regulations of the University are set out in the Charter, Statues and Ordinances and in the University Regulations, Policy and Procedures.