The European Union and Human Rights

Instructor: Dr. Gerd Oberleitner

The European Union (EU) has established itself as a key player (and payer) in human rights on a global level. Human rights are not only of importance within the European Union and for European Union citizens but have become an intrinsic part of the EU’s external relations. The EU regularly invokes human rights in its bilateral relations with third countries, in international organisations and in its trade relations. In addition, it relies on related concepts such as democracy and good governance and – more recently – human security to guide its external policies. The EU seeks to operationalise such concepts through a variety of means, including financial assistance, training, human rights dialogues, “conditionality”, and election observation.

Yet, the EU’s approach to human rights is subject to critique for its lack of coherence, the application of double standards and ineffectiveness. The specifics of the EU’s human rights policy and its operational tools and the interaction between international human rights law and European law are often little understood outside expert circles, leading to false assumptions and expectations as to what the EU can and should deliver in terms of human rights.

This e-learning course is an introduction to human rights in the EU’s external relations. It seeks to provide fundamental information on the EU’s human rights law and policy, explore the critique levelled against the EU and shed light on the legal and political conditions under which the EU seeks to protect and promote human rights globally.

The course explains, in general terms, what the EU is and what it does and how it fits into the larger European human rights system. It explores the role of human rights in the Union, including the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, the content and meaning of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the challenges that the Union faces with regard to asylum, immigration, racism and xenophobia, as well as the newly established Fundamental Rights Agency. It focuses on a selected range of important means and methods which the EU uses to assist in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. They include human rights dialogues, human rights guidelines, human rights clauses, support for democracy and good governance, election observation, peace support operations, and financing human rights. The course critically assesses such tools and operations from a theoretical and practical point of view, questions the existence of a coherent EU human rights policy and analyses the impact of the EU’s activities on the ground.

Course structure

The course is inter-disciplinary in its approach and draws on readings and other resources from international relations, international law and European law. Knowledge of human rights and European/international law is beneficial, but not a prerequisite. In six weeks of learning, discussion and interaction an experienced course instructor will guide participants through the readings, discussions and short assignments. He will provide information in form of on-line reading material, including webcasts and videos, and in weekly “mini-lectures”. The course involves approximately 30 hours of reading, on-line working groups, quizzes, webinars, and interaction among participants, the instructor and invited guests, and is offered over a 6-week period. The course will integrate active and participatory learning approaches within activities and assignments, with an emphasis on reflective and collaborative learning.The maximum number of course participants is 25. Students who successfully complete the course will receive a certificate of completion. It is also possible to audit the course.

Course outline

Week 1: Human rights in the EU
Week 2: Human rights guidelines (on death penalty, children in armed conflict, human rights defenders, and torture)
Week 3: “Conditionality” and human rights clauses
Week 4: Human rights dialogues
Week 5: Financing human rights
Week 6: Democracy, good governance and election observation

About the instructor: Dr. Gerd Oberleitner

Dr. Gerd Oberleitner is professor of international law at the University of Graz (Austria), where he works at the Institute of International Law and International Relations. His research interests are primarily in international human rights law, humanitarian law, human security and the law of international organisations. From 1998 to 1999 he served as Legal Adviser in the human rights and humanitarian law department of the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and has in subsequent years joined the Austrian governmental delegation to sessions of the (then) UN Human Rights Commission. From 1999 to 2002 he was the Executive Secretary of the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (ETC) in Graz. From 2002 to 2004 he was Lecturer in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and subsequently Visiting Fellow at the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights until 2007. He was visiting professor/scholar at the University of Prishtina, the European Inter-University Centre Venice and the Université du Quebéc à Montréal. For more than fifteen years, he has taught international law and international human rights law in a number of institutions and summer schools and in the Venice and Sarajevo Master Programmes on Human Rights and Democratisation. He has been an instructor for HREA e-learning courses since 2003. His publications include Global Human Rights Institutions: Between Remedy and Ritual (Cambridge, Polity, 2007) and Human Rights in Armed Conflict – Law, Practice, Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Who should apply

The course is intended for university students, NGO staff members of human rights/social justice organisations from EU member states, accession countries and donor recipient countries, and others who deal with the EU’s human rights policies or external relations. Participants should have a good written command of English and have high competence and comfort with computer and Internet use. HREA aims to ensure equal gender and geographical distribution across the selected participants.


Tuition fee for participants: US$ 575; tuition for auditors: US$ 215. Payments can be made online with major credit cards (Discover, MasterCard, Visa), PayPal, bank transfer (additional fee applies) and money transfer (Western Union, MoneyGram). Bulk rates are available. Payments are due upon registration.

How to register

Registration is closed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions about HREA’s e-learning courses.