A-Level Geography: Why Study Human Rights?

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By Phil Brighty
Posted 01/01/2021 - Updated 11/12/2023
The study of Human Rights is included as an option in many A-Level Geography specifications. It is difficult to determine its popularity as an option, but it is likely not widely chosen – perhaps it should be.
PB 012 01 Human Rights

Human rights are one of the major human interest "stories" of our time.

The content is current, relevant, and dynamic, touching on issues such as global modern slavery, including within the United Kingdom. For instance, have you ever considered that the workers at car washes or nail salons could be victims of forced labour?

Human Rights Fig2

The study of Human Rights connects with a wide range of topics within the geography syllabus, including development issues, globalisation, labour movements, migration, political geography, resource exploitation, and environmental impact. It is a data-rich field that encourages individual research and generates classroom discussions. It helps develop geographical skills such as inquiry, investigation, analysis, and synthesis. There is also an overlap with other subjects like law, politics, economics, and sociology. Pursuing a deep interest in human rights can lead to a career path in this field.

Human Rights Fig3

Professor Todd Landman is one of the leading advocates for Human Rights in the United Kingdom.

Landman is a Political Science Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Nottingham. He is also the Executive Director of the Rights Lab, which conducts research on ending modern slavery. He has kindly answered a few of our questions regarding the study of human rights and its place in the A-Level Geography syllabus.

Human Rights Fig4

1) The term "human rights" is broad. What areas does it cover?

Human rights have evolved over time and now encompass an expanding collection of categories and dimensions. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a proliferation of international legally binding human rights instruments with varying degrees of state ratification. These instruments articulate a comprehensive set of human rights, including civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The international human rights legal regime also emphasises state obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights. There are currently more than 60 human rights articulated in international law, and they are conceived as mutually reinforcing and interdependent.

2) As a professor of political science, what inspired you to focus on human rights?

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s, I explored authoritarian regimes and transitions to democracy in Latin America. Later, while pursuing an MA in Latin American studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC, I worked as a library aide in a photographic lab. During that time, I developed a series of pictures for the Presidential Commission investigating the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989. Since then, I have been researching, teaching, and consulting internationally on measuring and analysing human rights issues worldwide.

3) Why is the study of human rights increasingly important? What are the benefits for students who choose the A-Level human rights option?

Human rights have enduring appeal as they serve as a bulwark against the worst forms of human behaviour and provide guarantees that protect individual agency and dignity. Their advancement over time has been partial, subject to setbacks, and incomplete. Simultaneously, new human rights issues emerge daily, demanding careful and rigorous attention. Currently, human rights face threats from civil wars, conflicts, terrorism, the COVID pandemic, and the rise of populist nationalism, which undermine human rights and the international institutions that protect them.

Studying human rights is a captivating topic that transcends various disciplines, including philosophy, law, political science, economics, sociology, geography, health, and anthropology. Additionally, it increasingly intersects with information and communications technology, big data, and data science.

4) What is the connection between human rights and geography? What skills do geographers contribute?

Human rights have implications in both human and physical geography, which explore the complex interactions between people and the natural world over time and space. Theories, methods, and a geographical mindset from geography have significant contributions to make in the study of human rights. Particularly, geography contributes to understanding sustainable development goals, environmental degradation and protection, marginalised groups in urban and rural settings, and the application of earth observation and remote sensing to map gross human rights violations.

5) What are the current "hot" topics that students should focus on and can you provide an example of a project involving geography and human rights that you are currently engaged in?

Some of the current "hot" topics related to human rights include violent conflict, terrorism, climate change, COVID, refugees and migration, and modern slavery. I am currently involved in a project that utilises earth observation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to map the "brick kiln" industry across South Asia. The analysis estimates the number of brick kilns, the likelihood of forced labour and modern slavery in these sites, and the interaction between the expansion of this industry, carbon emissions, water usage, economic development, and migration.

6) Are there university-level courses on Human Rights, and what qualifications do students need to apply? What qualities are selectors looking for in applicants?

There are undergraduate programs in human rights offered at universities across the United Kingdom. The specific entry requirements may vary among institutions, but a solid performance in A-Levels is generally required. In addition to meeting the GCSE and A-Level requirements of the selecting university, selectors are interested in the personal motivations of applicants to study human rights, any lived experiences related to human rights issues, and other relevant experiences that demonstrate a commitment to the field. They are also keen to understand the applicant's future vision for further study or employment utilising their human rights qualification.

Here are some resources to help students get started:

  • Geography Factsheets on Human Rights can provide additional insights.
  • Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Anti-Slavery International, Global Rights, The Human Rights Foundation, Survival International, among other major Human Rights NGOs, have excellent websites with valuable resources for investigation.
  • The United Nations website offers comprehensive information on human rights.
  • Several podcasts focus on human rights, including The RightsTrack, Right On, and Right Cast.

Many A-Level Geography specifications include links to human rights-related topics:


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