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Time to Focus on Human Rights at A Level Geography

The study of Human Rights features as an option in both the Pearson, Edexcel and OCR A Level Geography specifications. In the absence of any data it is difficult to know how popular it is as an option. My guess is, probably not that popular. However, in my view, it should be.

Human Rights Fig1

Why Human Rights?

Human Rights Fig2
  1. It is one of the major human interest “stories” of our time.
  2. The content is current, relevant and dynamic, for example, issues around Modern Slavery globally and also within the United Kingdom. For example, did it ever occur to you that the eastern Europeans cleaning your car or the Asian women working in nail bars might be an example of forced labour?
  3. It links in to a wide range of topics within the geography syllabus:
    1. Development issues.
    2. Globalisation.
    3. Labour movements.
    4. Migration.
    5. Political Geography.
    6. Resource exploitation.
    7. Environmental impact.
  4. It is increasingly data rich, which encourages individual research and it will generate discussion in the classroom.
  5. It helps to develop geographical skills in terms of enquiry, investigation, analysis and synthesis.
  6. It crops up in other subject area so there is a cross-over with Law, Politics, Economics and Sociology.
  7. There is a career path for those who develop a deep interest in Human Rights issues.
Human Rights Fig 3

Photo Credit: Noisy Classroom

Q&A session with Professor Todd Landman

One of the leading proponents of Human Rights in the United Kingdom is Professor Todd Landman and he took time out to take part in a question and answer session on the study of human rights and why it has a place in the A Level Geography syllabus.

Todd is Professor of Political Science and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, and the Executive Director of the Rights Lab, carrying out research on ending modern slavery.

Human Rights Fig 4

The term Human Rights is a broad term. What areas does it cover?

Human rights have evolved over time to include an expanding collection of categories and dimensions. Since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights until now, there has been a proliferation of international legally binding human rights instruments with varying degrees of state ratification articulating a comprehensive set of human rights. These rights include civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The international human rights legal regime also comes with the idea of state obligation to respect (i.e. do not violate human rights), protect (i.e. prevent third party violations of human rights), and fulfil (i.e. use the maximum available resources to ensure the progressive realisation of human rights). There are today more than 60 human rights articulated in the international law of human rights and there are conceived as mutually reinforcing and interdependent.

As a professor of political science what was it that inspired you to focus on human rights?

I studied authoritarian regimes and transitions to democracy in Latin America as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s. I went on to study for an MA in Latin American studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where as a library aide in a photographic lab, I developed a series of pictures for the Presidential Commission investigating the murder of 6 Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989. Ever since then, I have researched, taught, and carried out international consultancies on the measurement and analysis of human rights problems around the world.

Why is the study of human rights increasingly important? What are the positives for students who choose the A Level human rights option?

Human rights have an enduring appeal and are the bulwark against the worst forms of human behaviour, while also a set of guarantees that protect individual agency and dignity. Their advance over time has been partial, prone to setbacks, and incomplete, while at the same time new human rights issues emerge almost daily that are in need of careful, rigorous, and judicious attention. In the current period, human rights are under threat from civil war, conflict, terrorism, the COVID pandemic, and the rise of populist nationalism that sees a turn way from human rights and the international institutions that seek to protect them.

Studying human rights is a fascinating topic that crosses the disciplines of philosophy, law, political science, economics, sociology, geography, health, and anthropology, while increasingly the topic also crosses over into information and communications technology, big data, and data science.

What do you see as the connection between the fields of human rights and geography? What skills do geographers bring to the table?

There are implications for human rights in both human and physical geography, which is the study of the complex interactions of people and the natural world over time and space. Theories and methods from geography and a geographical mindset have much to contribute to the study of human rights, particularly the sustainable development goals, environmental degradation and protection, marginalised groups in urban and rural settings, and the application of earth observation and remote sensing to mapping gross human rights violations.

What topics are “hot” at the moment? The topics students should be looking out for?

Violent conflict, terrorism, climate change, COVID, refugees and migration, and modern slavery.

Do you have an example of something involving geography and human rights that you or your colleagues are currently involved with?

I am currently involved in a project that uses earth observation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to map the ‘brick kiln’ industry across all of South Asia. The analysis estimates the number of brick kilns, the probability of forced labour and modern slavery being used on these sites, and the interaction between the proliferation of this industry and carbon emissions, water usage, economic development, and migration.

Are there courses on Human Rights at university level and what qualifications would students need if they wanted to apply and what sorts of things would selectors be looking for in letters of application, and what qualities are you looking for in applicants for a first degree?

There are undergraduate, programmes in human rights across the United Kingdom. Universities. They require a solid A level performance, which may vary by institution.

In addition to success and quality in GCSEs and A levels consistent with the entry requirements of the selecting University, selectors are really keen to see the personal motivations of applicants to study human rights, any lived experience that speaks to human rights issues, and any other experience that may be relevant to a commitment to study human rights. They will also be interested in the future vision the applicant may have in what they would do after being successful in the undergraduate studies in terms of further study and/or employment in ways that uses their human rights qualification.


There is almost too much to choose from but here are some suggestions to get students started.

  1. All of the main Human Rights NGOs have websites which excellent resources for investigation; Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Anti-Slavery International, Global Rights, The Human Rights Foundation, Survival International to name a few.
  2. The United Nations. See
  3. Podcasts. Check out The RightsTrack plus others, for example, Right On and Rightscast see
  4. GeoFactsheets on Human Rights

A Level Geography Specification Links

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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