International Law and Human Rights

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An understanding of international law is essential to virtually every legal practice area in an interconnected world, whether one is developing policy in a government or NGO, handling cross-border transactions for corporate clients, or advocating for the human rights of a marginalized group.

Featured Faculty

Professor Laurence Helfer

Laurence R. Helfer

Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law

The roots of Laurence Helfer's research interests, which range from the narrowing of human rights in an era of populism to the withdrawal of nations from multilateral institutions, reach back to his law practice, "from being exposed to the real-world implications of these issues." Professor Helfer is an expert in the areas of international law and institutions, international adjudication and dispute settlement, human rights (including LGBTQ rights), and international intellectual property law and policy, and with Professor Curtis Bradley, he co-directs Duke's Center for International and Comparative Law and serves as co-editor in chief of the American Journal of International Law

Selected Courses

252 Foreign Relations Law

This course examines the constitutional and statutory doctrines regulating the conduct of American foreign relations. Topics include the distribution of foreign relations powers between the three branches of the federal government, the status of international law in U.S. courts, the scope of the treaty power, the validity of executive agreements, the pre-emption of state foreign relations activities, the power to declare and conduct war, and the political question and other doctrines regulating judicial review in foreign relations cases. Where relevant, we will focus on current events, such as the recent lawsuits against China concerning COVID-19, controversies over immigration enforcement, the withdrawal by the United States from various treaties, and uses of military force against alleged terrorists.

501 Civil Litigation in U.S. Federal Courts: Transnational issues

This course analyzes civil suits in U.S. federal courts that raise cross-border, international, and foreign legal issues. Specific topics covered include transnational jurisdiction, international forum selection, transborder choice of law, extraterritorial application of U.S. law, federal rules for service of process and discovery of evidence abroad, the special treatment of foreign governments as parties, and recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments.

537 Human Rights Advocacy

This course critically assesses the field of human rights advocacy, its institutions, strategies, and key actors. It explores how domestic, regional, and global human rights agendas are set using international law frameworks; the ethical and accountability dilemmas that arise in human rights advocacy; and human rights advocacy concerning a range of actors, including governments, international institutions, and private actors. It addresses the role of human rights in social movements, including in addressing systemic racism, as well as the development of transnational human rights networks. It also considers issues such as how to resolve purported hierarchies and conflicts between internationally-guaranteed rights, efforts to decolonize the practice of human rights, and the ways in which populist and other forces also invoke human rights to further particular agendas. Drawing on case studies within the United States and abroad, it will examine core human rights advocacy tactics, such as fact-finding, litigation, standard-setting, indicators, and reporting, and consider the role of new technologies in human rights advocacy. In examining the global normative framework for human rights, this course focuses on how local, regional, and international struggles draw on, and adapt, the norms and tactics of human rights to achieve their objectives.

546 International Law of Armed Conflict

This seminar will examine the international law of armed conflict, and it focuses on the jus in bello context. Students will consider the rationale for the key concepts of the law of armed conflict and examine their practical application in various contexts. Case studies (contemporary and historical) will be examined in conjunction with the topics covered. This historical context for the law of armed conflict — agreements, the status of conflicts, combatants, and civilians, targeting, rules of engagement, war crimes — are all included among the topics the class will address. Students will be encouraged to relate legal and interdisciplinary sources in order to better understand the multi-faceted interaction between law and war. 

558 Foreign Anti-Bribery Law

Corruption is one of the major factors inhibiting economic development and undermining governmental legitimacy. Developed governments generally enforce rules prohibiting domestic corruption but have historically been less concerned with (and even encouraging of) foreign government corruption. The United States passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, which prohibits covered entities from bribing foreign officials, represents a major shift in this policy. In the last fifteen years, most other major economies and economic institutions (the IMF, the World Bank) have followed suit, although enforcement has been inconsistent. This seminar will examine the origins and evolution of this effort to regulate firms' relationships with foreign government officials. 

International Human Rights Clinic

Through class work and collaborative fieldwork, students in the International Human Rights Clinic learn to critically engage with cutting-edge human rights issues, strategies, tactics, institutions, and law in both domestic and international settings. They develop a skillset of interdisciplinary advocacy tools — such as fact-finding, litigation, indicators, reporting, and messaging — and develop competencies related to managing trauma in human rights work as well as the ethical and accountability challenges of human rights lawyering.

students at UN

JD/LLM in International and Comparative Law

The dual-degree JD/LLM in International and Comparative Law is an integrated three-year program that combines rigorous legal training with in-depth study of global issues, opportunities to work and study abroad, and focused mentoring, networking, and career development. Students in the program attend the Duke-Leiden Institute in Global and Transnational Law, a summer residential program held at Leiden University’s campus in The Hague that also enrolls other U.S. law students as well as international law students and attorneys. 

International trade class

Meet Maryam Kanna '21

Maryam Kanna

As a student in the JD/LLM in International and Comparative Law dual-degree program, Maryam spent part of the summer after her first year participating in the Duke-Leiden Institute in Global and Transnational Law after completing an internship with Lenz & Staehelin in Geneva. During her second year at Duke Law, Kanna was president of the Middle East and North African Law Students Association. She has also worked in the International Human Rights Clinic, served as executive director of events and advocacy for the Duke Immigrant and Refugee Project, a Duke Law Journal notes editor, and a student editor on the American Journal of International Law.


I think that having an international legal perspective opens your mind. I didn't find another law school that had quite such a structured and integrated program.

Maryam Kanna '21
Duke-Leiden Institute in Global and Transnational Law
Call to Action Content

The Duke-Leiden Institute in Global and Transnational Law is a one-month residential program in The Hague, the Netherlands, designed for students and professionals interested in studying international and comparative law. The Institute, which takes place over four weeks in June and July, also provides an excellent foundation for studying law in the United States. 

Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law

Published since 1990, the Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law is a student-edited publication that features articles from prominent international scholars and practitioners on issues of comparative and international law. 

Center for International and Comparative Law

Launched in 2006, Duke Law School’s Center for International and Comparative Law (CICL) coordinates and supports the School’s programs, resources, and events in the areas of international law, comparative law, and U.S. foreign relations law.

Human Rights @ Duke Law

Human Rights @ Duke Law provides an integrated approach to human rights education, advocacy and scholarship that places students at the intersection of human rights theory and practice, both domestically and abroad.