Defending Human Rights - Online Distance Learning Programme

The online programme in Defending Human Rights is NOT running in 2017/18.

  • A part-time programme designed for human rights defenders and related practitioners
  • Scholarships available to cover 50% of fees
  • Online teaching by tutors and guest lecturers with practical field experience
  • Modules in International Human Rights Law and Advocacy, Working Safely: Managing Risk and Strengthening Protection, and Leading and Managing Effective Human Rights Organisations.



Defending Human Rights

Defending Human Rights is a part-time distance learning programme delivered wholly online in a fully supported environment.

Students can take one or more modules as a continuing professional development (CPD) student, without academic credit.

Who is this programme for?

This programme is designed specifically for human rights defenders and those who protect and assist them.

Human rights defenders are people who promote and strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This programme would be of interest to a broad range of people engaged in human rights work, such staff of national and international NGOs, lawyers, journalists, writers, government officials, activists, community workers, trade union officials, social workers, teachers and scholars.

The three modules in this programme are designed to help human rights defenders build the knowledge and practical skills needed for effective human rights work under challenging circumstances. 

When starting my new position as a human rights adviser in a rather large regional organisation, I quickly discovered that I lagged behind many other colleagues on certain areas of international law. Upon carrying out extensive online research, I found the online distance learning Postgraduate Certificate in Defending Human Rights at the University of York. I have not been disappointed.

Over the course of the past year, I have significantly enhanced my knowledge on international human rights law and advocacy, managing risk to ensure the safety of human rights defenders as well as effective leadership and management of human rights organisations. I thoroughly enjoyed the learning methods employed during the course. There was a great mix of reading, assignments, essays, case studies, personal reflections and interesting discussions on the discussion board.

Whilst it was sometimes challenging trying to balance work and study, it was very much manageable and there is a great sense of achievement at the conclusion of the programme. This was due - in no small part - to the constant support and assistance received from tutors and module managers during the programme. I cannot recommend this course enough; I would encourage all those who foresee a career on the international law or human rights scene to enroll!

Orla Crowe, Human Rights Adviser/Property, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Mission in Kosovo



This programme comprises three modules, which can be taken individually as continuous professional development - CPD - modules.

  • International Human Rights Law and Advocacy (Autumn Term)
  • Working Safely: Managing Risk and Strengthening Protection (Spring Term)
  • Leading and Managing Effective Human Rights Organisations (Summer Term)

CPD students undertake 60 hours of work over 9-10 weeks for each module.

Term Dates

In the 2016/17 academic year, the term dates are as follows:

Autumn Term

International Human Rights Law and Advocacy


  • Teaching: 30 September–1 December 2016 (Friday-Thurs)
  • Final Assignment Due: 5 January 2017 (Thurs)
  • Break: 6–10 January 2017

Spring Term


Working Safely: Managing Risk and Strengthening Protection

  • Teaching: 11 January – 15 March 2017 (Wed to Tue)
  • Final Assignment Due: 4 April 2017 (Tue)
  • Break: 5–18 April 2017

Summer Term

Leading and Managing Effective Human Rights Organisations

  • Teaching: 19 April – 14 June 2017 (Wed to Tue)
  • Final Assignment Due: 11 July 2017 (Tue)

For term dates in future academic years, visit the University of York website.

All new students are given access to an induction course on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Yorkshare, three weeks ahead of the start of each module, in order to allow them to familiarise themselves with the VLE.


International Human Rights Law and Advocacy

Module convener: Martin Jones

I have taken all three of the modules in the Defending Human Rights online programme. The experience has been valuable and has translated directly into initiatives I have started.

Chitra Nagarajan, Gender and Conflict Adviser,  Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme

What is international human rights law and how can human rights defenders conduct advocacy using concepts, principles, and mechanisms based on it? How do international, regional and national protection mechanisms designed for human rights defenders work in practice?

The module begins with an introduction to international human rights law and an analysis of the 1998 Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders), examining its development, function and content. Students examine how the rights articulated in the Declaration have been (and can be) protected through different mechanisms, including charter-based and treaty-based bodies as well as special procedures. Students also examine the development and use of the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders as well as review the impact of the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for human rights defenders. Students study the efforts by some states to protect human rights defenders through domestic laws, institutions, and policies.

In this module, emphasis is placed on developing practical skills in international legal advocacy. Students learn how to design and select context-appropriate legal advocacy strategies.

This module features a guest appearance by Enrique Eguren, President of the Board of Protection International and Director of its Policy, Research and Training Unit.

Working Safely: Managing Risk and Strengthening Protection

As the Coordinator of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, I encourage other human rights defenders to join this online course. It is very useful for our own security and survival as human rights defenders.

Mr. Onesmo Olengurumwa, Tanzania

Module convener: Alice Nah

How can human rights defenders manage the risks involved in human rights work? What can be done to protect and assist human rights defenders at risk?

This module examines the risks faced by human rights defenders around the world and how individuals and organisations respond to protect themselves and others. Beginning with an overview of global trends in human rights advocacy, students examine the social, political and technological forces that shape the work of human rights defenders. Students examine techniques of repression as well as strategies for mitigating risks and working safely.

Students learn about the different steps involved in security management, including how to conduct risk assessment (which involves analysing the operational context, potential threats, vulnerabilities, and capacities) and how to develop operational security strategies. Students learn how to develop and implement security plans and how to monitor security conditions. Students also examine the social, economic and political challenges in implementing security management.

In this module, emphasis is placed on developing practical skills in risk analysis, producing and using security plans, and maintaining digital security.

This module features guest appearances by Mary Lawlor, the Director of Front Line Defenders, and Hassan Shire Sheikh, Coordinator of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defender Project (EHAHRDP).

Leading and Managing Effective Human Rights Organisations

Module convener: John Gray

I already started to recommend this course, one of the most useful trainings I have taken. Thanks again for making it happen and please keep this great contribution to the human rights movement.

Luisa Perez, Protection International

How can human rights defenders lead and manage human rights organisations well? How can human rights defenders practice rights-based approaches and principles in their workplace? What key issues do human rights defenders face when working in organisations?

This module examines the behaviours and processes involved in leading and managing human rights organisations effectively. The module begins with an overview of the ways in which human rights defenders work together – for example, in informal groups, registered non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and networks. It examines the relationships between socio-political change and the stresses faced by human rights organisations. It raises awareness of repressive mechanisms used to reduce the effectiveness of human rights organisations (such as restrictions on registration and threats against staff members) and ways of responding to these. Students learn best practices in strategic planning and project management, human rights based programming, performance management, human resources management, fundraising and financial management, ‘globally responsible practice’ (the so-called ‘triple bottom line’), and good governance. Students explore the concept of ‘the learning organisation’ and how organisational learning can be captured and used. In terms of practical skills, students assess their own personal style of leading and managing others and conducting an assessment of a human rights organisation, proposing plans for its development.

Students will examine the ways in which human rights organisations have evolved in relation to globalisation processes, the changing role of the modern state, and the demands of human rights work. They will evaluate the significance of transnational advocacy networks in shaping the capacities of organisations. They will examine efforts to increase the legitimacy of NGOs, such as the emphasis placed on accountability and good governance. They will examine the differences between international NGOs and domestic NGOs, evaluating how the relate with each other, in both productive and counter-productive ways. Overall, this module is aimed at increasing the security of human rights defenders at the level of organisations, and helping human rights organisations to increase their resilience, adaptability and sustainability in the face of adversity and external change.

John Gray is a Teaching Fellow at the York Law School, University of York. Originally qualifying and practising as a solicitor, John has worked at the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva; for Mennonite Central Committee in Burundi, Central Africa; and has created and led the City of York Council’s community mediation service. For the last thirteen years, individual, community and whole organisation development have been at the core of John’s consultancy practice.  His work has mainly involved facilitating organisational change, strategic planning, training and capacity-building, and one-to-one executive development. John has a Postgraduate Certificate in Management and Leadership and an Advanced Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling.

Online study

Online Study

This course is delivered wholly online through Yorkshare, the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) used by the University of York.

Yorkshare is a system of managed web pages that provides students with access to learning resources and the means to communicate and collaborate with other students and staff over the Internet.

All students are issued a username and password that gives them access to Yorkshare and the University’s digital library resources.

All students are set number of activities to complete each week. All of these activities can be completed at a time convenient to them; there are no activities that require students to be online at specific times.

In a typical week, students are asked to listen to pre-recorded lectures; watch/listen to video/audio recordings; read articles; complete quizzes and online tasks; as well as participate in online discussions.  Students are placed in virtual tutorial groups in which they analyse Case Studies together. 

All students are required to complete a Practical Assignment (around 1,500 words).

In addition, postgraduate students are required to discuss additional readings online and submit an Essay Outline (500 words, due Week 4) as well as an Essay (3,000 words, due Week 14).

Induction Course

All new students are given access to an online induction course three weeks in advance of the start of each module. The induction course includes:

  • A technical system check to ensure that students have the appropriate equipment and software;
  • Exercises to promote familiarity with the online environment; and
  • An introduction to key concepts.

Students need to have access to a personal computer with Internet connection. A minimum of a 56k modem dialup is required – although for reasonable user experience, broadband connection of at least 1MB is preferred.

Students who anticipate having poor Internet connection are advised to let us know in advance so that we can explore ways of strengthening their participation in each module.

I have taken all three of the modules in the Defending Human Rights Programme. The experience has been valuable and has translated directly into initiatives I have started. As a result of the programme and in recognition of the risks inherent in their work, I made the case within my organisation for providing security training to our partners in northeastern Nigeria, currently experiencing violent conflict and commission of human rights abuses. I would not have even considered this as an area in which we should support our partners without being part of the Working Safely module.

Chitra Nagarajan, Gender and Conflict Adviser, Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme


Entry Requirements

CPD Students

In order to be admitted to each module, students must have:

  • The ability to communicate in English through writing
  • Some experience of human rights work
  • Some experience of formal education at secondary level

Application Process

CPD Students

To participate in the modules as a CPD student, complete this online Application Form.

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.

Fees / Funding

The University of York reviews the annual tuition fees each year.

CPD Students

CPD students can enrol for each module one at a time. For the academic year 2016/17, tuition fees for each module are £430.



CPD Students

CAHR offers a limited number of partial scholarships (50 percent of fees) for CPD students in non-OECD countries who are:

  • actively involved in human rights work; and
  • either hold a leadership position in a civil society organisation or demonstrate strong potential for such leadership.

Indicate your desire to apply for a scholarship when you complete the online Application Form.

We do not have any available scholarships for students taking the Postgraduate Certificate.

Deadlines for applying are as follows;
  • International Human Rights Law and Advocacy, 15 September 2016 
  • Working Safely:Managing Risk and Strengthening Protection, 15 December 2017
  • Leading and Managing Effective Human Rights Organisations, 31 March 2017

Organisations interested in sponsoring students are encouraged to contact CAHR.

Besides keeping me engaged and occupied the programme has enlightened me on how I can improve my leadership skills as a leader of an effective human rights organisation and also to consolidate my role as a woman leader. The programme has also helped me come out with a tangible product, the Security Plan, which my organisation is now using as a basis for the development of its security plan. For a long time the organisation has operated without one and thanks to the programme within a few months the organisation will have its own plan.

Jestina Mukoko, Director, Zimbabwe Peace Project