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MA in Applied Human Rights

The MA focuses on the use of rights discourse and tools within the human rights mainstream and in a range of related fields (development, humanitarianism, conflict transformation, the environment, public health etc.).

As such, it is designed for practitioners and would-be practitioners across this spectrum who wish to engage with applied human rights.


Why choose the MA at York?

The reason I chose the MA in Applied Human Rights is because of the emphasis on being 'applied', and there are opportunities to exercise this at every point of the course.

Jonathan Rebours, Jersey, MA in Applied Human Rights 2015/16

Our MA in Applied Human Rights is distinctive in five main ways:

  • it is uniquely applied, exploring how human rights can advance social justice in law, policy and social activism
  • it is interdisciplinary and holistic (integrating knowledge of human rights, development, conflict, and more)
  • students will acquire relevant knowledge but also skills that are vital for a career in human rights e.g. project management skills
  • the lecturers are both academics and experienced practitioners, and the international human rights defenders hosted by the Centre will attend and lead classes
  • an international field trip to South Africa takes place in the first term (student numbers permitting), enabling students to work alongside local NGOs and human rights defenders on concrete projects.


Course content

MA structure

The MA course's interdisciplinary breadth familiarised me with a number of fields beyond human rights, such as conflict and development studies, that are key to a complete understanding of peacebuilding. There is a definite sense at the Centre of looking beyond the limits of academia - the field trip to South Africa in the first term and the frequent opportunities to interact with human rights defenders and activists, from York and beyond, really helped ground the coursework in reality. The MA was a great springboard for my career!

David Elliot, UK, Programmes Officer at Concilation Resources London, MA student 2012/13

The MA structure has two components: compulsory modules, and optional modules. In total, students need to complete five modules (two compulsory, in the first term; one compulsory, running over two terms; two options in the second term). A dissertation will fulfill the requirements for an MA. This structure has been chosen so as to maximize the choice available to students, but to guide the selection process in a constructive way eg: indicating where modules are practice-based and where they are not.

Continuous assessment of applied skills is a feature of the programme.

Compulsory modules

The three compulsory modules are: 'Defending human rights'; 'Social sciences and human rights practice'; and 'International human rights law and advocacy'. The compulsory modules reflect the two sides to activism - the strategies employed and the debates, institutions and political structures activism seeks to influence - and will engage with all facets of the paradox outlined above.

  • Defending human rights (40 credits; terms 1-2)
  • Social sciences and human rights practice (20 credits; term 1)
  • International human rights law and advocacy (20 credits, term 1)
  • Dissertation (60 credits, terms 3-4)

Optional modules

In the second term students will be able to take two options. Those offered by CAHR will share the characteristics of the MA (practice based and interdisciplinary) and will explore areas where rights are being used in new and innovative ways. Students may also select from optional modules listed below taught by other departments.

Optional modules taught at CAHR

  • Asylum, migration and trafficking
  • Culture and protest
  • Development Alternatives: Development, Rights, Security
  • Truth, justice and reparations after violence

Optional modules taught in other departments

  • Conflict and development (Politics)
  • Globalisation and social policy (Social Policy and Social Work)
  • Global social problems (Social Policy and Social Work)
  • International organisations (Politics)
  • New security challenges (Politics)
  • Teaching and learning citizenship and global education (Education)
  • Women, citizenship and conflict (Centre for Women's Studies)

*Please note that optional modules may not run if the lecturer is on leave or there is insufficient demand.


Gaining direct experience of fieldwork is a key component of the MA in Applied Human Rights. The fieldwork takes place either in Cape Town, South Africa, or in York over a two week period in weeks 9 and 10 of the autumn term. Please note that the South Africa fieldwork/placements will only run if there are sufficient student numbers. Projects are based on partnerships with local organisations. Students, in small groups, will be expected to forge a relationship with one organisation, which will develop over the course of the year of the MA. As such, the experience mirrors a classic human rights mission, requiring the following elements:

  1. Preparation: extensive background research on country context, the host organisation, relevant thematic issues etc., and agreeing with the local partner the exact profile of the project;
  2. Field work: two weeks intensive work in Cape Town or York in December; and
  3. Follow up: project completion and dissemination of the project output(s).

To get an idea of previous years' fieldtrips to South Africa, have a look at student feedback.


During the summer term students start work on a dissertation of up to 12,000 words on a topic of their choice. The dissertation is due for submission in early or mid-September.

Full-time/part-time study

The MA is offered on a full-time and part-time basis. Part-time students complete two compulsory modules ('Social sciences and human rights practice' and 'International human rights law and advocacy': term one) and one optional module (term two) in their first year. In year two, part time students enrol for the 'Defending human rights' compulsory module and their second optional module. They also go on the field trip and complete their dissertation.


Compulsory modules

Defending Human Rights

Instructors: Paul Gready, John Gray, Martin Jones, Alice Nah, Lars Waldorf

The main aim of this module is to have students develop the practical, problem solving, and reflective skills needed for human rights work. At the start of the year, students will be placed in Project Groups linked to placements with Project Partners in South Africa (for the MA), Malaysia (for the LLM), or UK (for MA /LLM students who do not travel abroad). (Please note the placements in South Africa and Malaysia will only run if there are sufficient student numbers.) Each group is required to produce a Project Output together, which is submitted to their Project Partner in the Spring Term. Throughout the two terms, students engage in tasks designed to develop specific skill sets, accumulating portfolios of work for assessment. Centre staff, experienced practitioners, and international human rights defenders based at the Centre will lead and participate in the lectures, seminars and workshops for this module.

Key texts: Aengus Carroll, Make it Work: Six Steps to Effective LGBT Human Rights Advocacy (ILGA Europe, 2010); Ron Dudai, "Advocacy with Footnotes: The Human Rights Report as a Literary Genre", in Human Rights Quarterly 28:3 (2006); Frontline, Workbook on Security: Practical Steps for Human Rights Defenders at Risk (Frontline, 2011); Peter Rosenblum, "Teaching Human Rights: Ambivalent Activism, Multiple Discourses, and Lingering Dilemmas," in Harvard Human Rights Journal, vol. 15 (2002).

International Human Rights Law and Advocacy

Instructor: Martin Jones

This module examines how to conduct human rights advocacy based on international human rights law. Particular attention is paid to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998) which shifted the paradigm from states to individuals and from law to implementation. The Declaration is used as a case study throughout the module to explore the interpretation of legal texts and to understand the challenges facing those advocating for the rights of others. Students will learn methods of analysing human rights problems and evaluating the applicability of theories on change, framing and political opportunity in human rights work in their own contexts. Students will learn how to design and select context-appropriate advocacy strategies. The module will also provide a forum for students to engage with the Centre’s visiting human rights defenders.

Key texts:"Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" General Assembly Resolution A/RES/53/144 (9 December 1998); R. Charli Carpenter, "Governing the Global Agenda: Gate-keeping and Issue Adoption in Transnational Advocacy Networks." in Deborah Avant, Martha Finnemore and Susan Sell, Who Governs the Globe? (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2010); Daniel Joloy, "Mexico's National Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders: Challenges and Good Practices" (2013) 5(3) Journal of Human Rights Practice, 489-499.

Social Sciences and Human Rights Practice

Instructor: Paul Gready

This module will focus on a central question: How are practical advances in human rights through law, policy and programming being advanced using insights and methods from the social sciences? The module is split into two sections. The first section on the ‘inter-disciplinarity of human rights’ provides background on human rights institutions and activism, and the insights diverse disciplines can provide on a particular issue: genocide. The second section on ‘the social sciences and human rights practice’ explores ways in which the social sciences help us understand and tackle key practical dilemmas: 1) How much scope should there be for cultural diversity? 2) How should human rights research be conducted? 3) What means are available to measure impact and evaluate human rights work? 4) How should we anticipate and alter responses to human rights advocacy, specifically from perpetrators and the general public? 5) How should human rights practice understand and encourage agency (resistance, participation, empowerment)? 6) What theories of change underpin human rights work?

Key texts: A. Clapham. Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction. OUP: Oxford, 2007; M. Freeman. Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Polity: Cambridge, 2002; M. Goodale (ed.) Human Rights: An Anthropological Reader. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, 2009; C. Nyamu-Musembi. 'Towards an Actor-Oriented Perspective on Human Rights', IDS Working Paper 169, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, October 2002. Also see the Journal of Human Rights Practice and New Tactics in Human Rights


Please note the offering of option modules will vary from year to year depending on student numbers and lecturer availability.

Asylum, Migration and Human Trafficking

Instructor: Martin Jones

This module will examine the phenomenon of human movement, including both forced and voluntary migration, and the legal frameworks that govern the rights of various categories of migrants. The module will focus on the specific policies which states put in place to advance (and to hinder) the enjoyment by migrants of their rights. The module will explore the general category of “migrant” and its various sub-categories (as defined by location of movement and by degree of volition), including the internally displaced, labour migrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking. The module will examine the legal tools available to human rights defenders seeking to assist these groups. It will also examine the extent to which human rights law and policy have managed to challenge two of the remaining bastions of state sovereignty: the related powers of a state to control entrance and egress and its power to control its membership.

Key texts: Carol Batchelor, "Transforming International Legal Principles into International Law: The Right to a Nationality and the Avoidance of Statelessness", 25(3) in Refugee Survey Quarterly 8 (2006); Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights of internally displaced persons, UN Doc. No. A/HRC/13/21 (5 January 2010); UK Border Agency, "Chapter 26: Unaccompanied Minors" (Enforcement Instructions); US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 (June 2012)

Culture and Protest

Instructor: Paul Gready and others

This module aims to analyse the diverse ways in which forms of culture are currently deployed in protest and community engagement, and the broader political context of such deployment.Recent political protest, from the Arab spring to the Occupy movement, has seen a revival of cultural forms of mobilisation and protest. The cultural forms used range from street theatre and cinema, to graffiti, public art and music. Cultural media also have a secure place in more conventional NGO advocacy, conflict resolution and public outreach. Human rights film festivals are now a regular feature of the cultural calendar, while participatory photography, video and theatre work are used to empower local constituencies to advocate on their own behalf.

A cross-cutting theme in the module will be the exploration of participatory cultural methods in activism. The module starts with three foundational lectures on culture, protest and 'unruly politics'; arts project management and participatory methods; and the right to cultural expression and the ethics of cultural practice. These introductory lectures will be followed by case studies on film festivals/documentary film, literature, photography, social media, theatre, and community arts. As a means of applying the insights gained from the module, students will organise the annual York Human Rights Film Festival and/or human rights reading groups in the city in the spring term/vacation. A small budget will be available for these activities, and the student groups will choose relevant themes and project manage the events.

Key texts: P. Gready. "Introduction – Responsibility to the Story". Journal of Human Rights Practice 2 (2) 2010: 177-90; A. Khanna et al. The Changing Face of Citizen Action: A Mapping Study through an 'Unruly' Lens, IDS Working Paper, Vol. 2013, No. 432; D. Iordanova and L. Torchin (eds) Film Festivals and Activism. St. Andrews Film Studies, 2012; C. Ramirez-Barat. Transitional Justice, Culture, and Society: Beyond Outreach. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2014; Report of the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, Farida Shaheed: The Right to Freedom of Artistic Expression and Creativity. UN A/HRC/23/34, 14 March 2013.

Development Alternatives: Development, Rights, Security (expected to run in 2018)

Instructor: Paul Gready

This module explores the intersections between development, human rights, and security on the grounds that both in theory and in practice these sectors are increasingly interlinked. A second core concern addressed in the module is to explore the ways in which these intersections are creating alternatives to dominant approaches, such as neo-liberalism in the economic sphere/development and a focus on law and civil and political rights within human rights. The term alternatives is understood in various ways - for example, alternatives at both a global or systemic level and in relation to local innovation; and progressive but also illiberal or authoritarian alternatives. 
The module is split into three equally weighted sections: key concepts; global contexts; and local responses. The conceptual frameworks set out at the start will provide the spine of the module, and global and local case studies will refer back to conceptual frameworks provided at the start of the module. The module will be taught by a team of staff from the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) and Department of Politics, and all of the case studies draw on current research being undertaken by these staff members.

Truth, Justice and Reparations after Violence (not offered Spring 2017)

Instructor: Lars Waldorf

This module begins by locating victims’ rights to truth, justice, and reparations in treaty law and "soft law". It then critically examines the workings and impact of various transitional justice mechanisms – amnesties, criminal tribunals, truth commissions, and reparations – in specific international, national and local contexts. In doing so, the module explores key tensions within transitional justice: truth versus justice; peace versus justice; and civil/political wrongs versus socio-economic wrongs. Throughout the module, we will pay close attention to the question of what victims and survivors actually want.

Key texts: Priscilla Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions (Routledge, 2010); Tricia D. Olsen, Leigh A. Payne and Andrew G. Reiter, Transitional Justice in Balance: Comparing Processes, Weighing Efficacy (United States Institute of Peace, 2010); Rosalind Shaw and Lars Waldorf, eds., Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities after Mass Violence (Stanford, 2010); Kathryn Sikkink, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).



Gaining direct experience of fieldwork is a key component of the MA in Applied Human Rights. The fieldwork takes place either in Cape Town, South Africa, or in York over a two week period in weeks 9 and 10 of the autumn term. Please note that the South Africa trip/placements will only run if there are sufficient student numbers. Projects are based on partnerships with local organisations. Students, in small groups, will be expected to forge a relationship with one organisation, which will develop over the course of the year of the MA. As such, the experience mirrors a classic human rights mission, requiring the following elements:

  1. Preparation: extensive background research on country context, the host organisation, relevant thematic issues etc., and agreeing with the local partner the exact profile of the project;
  2. Field work: two weeks intensive work in Cape Town or York in December; and
  3. Follow up: project completion and dissemination of the project output(s).

Student fieldtrip experiences

To get an idea of previous years' fieldtrips to South Africa, have a look at student feedback.



People from diverse academic backgrounds, and from human rights organisations and other, related fields, are encouraged to apply. Applicants will normally be expected to have a good first degree (2:1 or its equivalent). Applications are also welcomed from candidates with a good 2:2 degree (or equivalent) and at least three years relevant work experience.

English Language Requirements

For the MA we require:

  • IELTS: 6.5, with no less than 6.0 in each component
  • PTE: 61, with no less than 55 in each component
  • CAE and CPE (from January 2015): 176, with no less than 169 in each component
  • CAE (before January 2015): 65, with 'Good' in Writing
  • CPE (before January 2015): C
  • TOEFL: 87, with a minimum of 21 in each component
  • Trinity ISE: level 3 with Merit in all requirements

Further guidance can be found on the International Applicants language requirements page.

MA fees and expenses

Information on fees for 2016/17 is available at the University website for fees and funding.

Students will need to budget for the South Africa field visit over and above fees and living expenses for the MA (approximately £1,250 to £1,400). Students undertaking placements in York do not incur additional costs, apart from potential limited local travel.

For details about potential sources of funding, students should consult the University of York Graduate Study website. Home (i.e. UK) students may be able to qualify for government backed loans. Please visit the University's website for the UK Government Postgraduate Loans Scheme for more information.

Scholarships 2017/8

CAHR scholarships for UK/EU students

The Centre for Applied Human Rights offers normally one partial scholarship for a student on the MA in Applied Human Rights each year. Scholarship(s) for 2017/8 will be announced here in spring 2017.

The University of York and the Politics Department offer postgraduate scholarships annually. For more information on scholarships and other funding opportunities, see Fees and Funding and the University's site for scholarships for international students.

International students: the International Office offers the following Scholarships for Overseas Students (SOS). 

Home/EU students: York Master's Opportunity Scholarships are available for students paying fees at home rates. These are normally advertised in early spring.

CAHR regularly hosts Chevening scholars on its MA programme. Please visit the secretariat's website for more information on Chevening Scholarships and check out what Chevening scholars at CAHR have to say about applying for the scholarship as well as studying at CAHR.

How to apply

You can apply for this course using our online application system. If you've not already done so, please read the application guidance first so that you understand the various steps in the application process.

Apply now button

For more information on studies at the University of York, open days, funding and scholarships, please visit the Postgraduate study website.

Those interested in applying or already admitted are welcome to visit us here in York or alternatively arrange for discussions by phone – please contact to arrange.

The MA at CAHR assisted in developing my research skills, ability to write in a professional way, and knowledge of the United Nations, politics and international relations. After graduating, I was better able to analyze issues from a local to global perspective, with deeper insight into practical problems and solutions. I believe this was key factor in getting hired as a Fundraiser for USA For UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) here in Los Angeles.

Brooke Spencer, United States, MA 2011/12


Where after the MA?

After graduating from CAHR's MA program I was able to gain some research work based on my dissertation at the Overseas Development Institute, the UK's leading development think tank. I have now started working for the Terrence Higgins Trust as an Outreach Coordinator. During the interview for this post I was able to draw directly on my experiences working in Cape Town for Sonke during the field trip, and the knowledge gained from taking the Health and Human Rights module.

Katie Rosenthal, MA student 2010/11

Our MA provides career advice, networking opportunities, hands-on experience, and personalised reference letters to help our graduates find good jobs with human rights NGOs, humanitarian and development organisations, policy think-tanks, national governments, and UN agencies.

Recent graduates have secured work with:

  • Government departments, e.g.working on health equality and trafficking in the UK, Finnish Centre for Human Rights (NHRI)
  • Human rights organisations, e.g. Freedom House, the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute (Washington, DC), Freedom from Torture (Yorkshire & Humberside), International Services and Brave New Films (USA)
  • Development and humanitarian organisations, e.g. Norwegian People's Aid and Merlin
  • Inter-governmental agencies, e.g. the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation in The Hague, UNDP in Bangladesh, UNRIC in Brussels and Quaker UN Office in Geneva
  • Research posts, e.g. PhD positions and Research Assistant on Corporate Social Responsibility at the American University, Beirut
  • Think-tanks, e.g. Involve, London
  • Businesses, e.g. Ethical Trade Coordinator at New Look Retailers

Students from 2013/14 have secured internships with

  • The African Refugee Development Center, Tel Aviv, Israel;
  • The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, United Nations, Geneva.

Students from 2012/13 secured internships with:

  • Reprieve, in the Abuses in Counter Terrorism team, London;
  • Film Festival Intern at Human Rights Watch, London;
  • Communications intern at Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York;
  • Project Planning Intern, Operation A Day's Work, Helsinki.

Students from 2011/12 secured internships with:

  • Human Rights Watch on communication and outreach;
  • UNDP Regional Centre in Slovakia on a Poverty Reduction Programme for Roma;
  • the Natural Resources Management discipline of the WorldFish Center (Malaysia) on climate change adaption in respect to Aquatic Agricultural Systems;
  • and volunteer placements with International Services in Bolivia and Burkina Faso, under the auspices of the DFID-funded International Citizen Service.

"Through the MA's modules and weekly Defending Human Rights workshops I was able to acquire the practical skills necessary to receive a paid, year-long fellowship with Front Line Defenders, a prominent human rights NGO. The course provides opportunities to both work as a team as well as independently, which is attractive to employers."

Amie Lajoie, United States, MA student 2011/12


MA Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between the MA and the LLM?

There is not all that much difference between the 2 programs:

  • MA students take a core module on "Social Sciences and Human Rights Practice" while LLM students take a core module on "Applying International Human Rights Law"
  • The overseas placement for MA students is in South Africa while that for LLM students is in Malaysia

Can I get a start on preparing for the MA?

We will send out some readings over the summer to help prepare you for your studies.

How big is the MA class? What is the class like?

There are usually 20-25 students in our MA each year. About a third come straight from university. Another third have been out of school for a few years. A final third are mid-career professionals. Some students have no human rights experience while others are human rights defenders. Students come from all over the world with about one-half coming from the UK and the EU.

How is the MA taught?

The MA is taught through a combination of lectures, seminars, problem-based learning, group work, and reflective learning.

What days will I have classes?

While we cannot confirm classroom timetabling until late summer, you might find it helpful to know the following:

  • Autumn Term has 8 weeks of classes and 2 weeks of placement (in South Africa or the UK)
  • Spring Term has 9 weeks of classes
  • Summer Term is mostly independent study on your dissertation
  • Students typically have 8 hours of classes per week

Will I be able to work during my MA?

Yes, many students do a combination of paid and volunteer work during the year. However, the University requires that full-time students do not work more than 20 hours per week.

How many contact hours will I have?

For full-time students, the contact hours are approximately:

  • Autumn Term: 36 hours of lectures and 28 hours of seminars
  • Spring Term: 40.5 hours of lectures and 31.5 hours of seminars
  • Summer Term: 16 hours of MA dissertation training, presentations, and one-on-one meetings
  • There is also a sizeable amount of group work outside the classroom for the "Defending Human Rights" module in Autumn and Spring Terms

How is the MA assessed?

Most modules have a 4000-word written assessment (ranging from academic essays to policy memos to shadow human rights reports) that counts for 100% of the total mark in that module. There are two exceptions:

  • "Defending Human Rights" has a 4000-word group project output (40% of the mark) plus two 2,000 word reflective diaries (60% of the mark)
  • The MA dissertation requires a 12,000-word dissertation (10% of the mark is an oral presentation and 90% the written work)

How can a student do well on the MA?

The highest academic award is a Distinction, which requires that students earn a 70 or above in all their modules and a 70 or above on their dissertation. More details are available in the University's Guide to Assessment.

Which optional modules will be available in 2017/8?

The Centre is expecting to offer 4 optional modules in Spring 2018:

  • Asylum, Migration & Human Trafficking
  • Culture & Protest
  • Development Alternatives: Development, Rights, Security
  • Mass atrocities

Students can also choose from a wide selection of optional modules in the Centre for Women's Studies, Education, Law, Politics, and Sociology. Availability varies year on year.

Students will have an opportunity to select their optional modules in August-September 2017.

Can I write my dissertation on any topic I'm interested in?

You can choose your own dissertation topic but it should have a human rights focus.

Will I have supervision or support throughout the process of writing my dissertation?

Yes, you will be assigned a dissertation supervisor. Where possible, we try to allocate you a supervisor who is familiar with your topic. You will also do a one-and-a-half day dissertation training at the start of the Summer Term.

Will it be possible to do a placement at International Service in York in 2017/8?

The NGO placements we have offered in prior years are illustrative. We negotiate placements with interested NGOs in South Africa and the UK in Summer 2017 and send out information then.

You select your placements in the first week of Autumn Term. Please note that placements do not run if there aren't enough interested students.

What funding is available for the MA?

There is information about funding opportunities on our website.

For overseas applicants, there is specific advice from recent Chevening Scholars on our website.

What is the deadline for my application?

There is no deadline for applications but there are deadlines for funding.

Fundamental questions

The MA addresses a paradox. Human rights is currently subject to critique on familiar territory, such as civil liberties in the post 9/11 era, and is expanding rapidly into new areas.

This context provides exciting new opportunities and fundamental challenges. There is a need to adjust our understanding of human rights, and human rights defenders, accordingly.

Our students in action

Watch a video based on the work of two MA students on a field trip to South Africa.

Studying for the MA in Applied Human Rights

Student experiences

I was employed by International Alert, a peace building INGO, as a Project Senior Officer within three months of finishing my studies in September 2015. My responsibilities include establishing a local mechanism of mitigating tensions in partnership with the local and affected community living in a multi sectarian region on the border of the endless war occurring in Syrian since 2011.

Rony Al Assaad, Lebanon, MA student 2014/15