PUBLISHED:March 17, 2014

Helfer teaches open online course on international human rights beginning March 31

Professor Laurence Helfer will teach a massively open online course (MOOC) on “International Human Rights Law: Prospects and Challenges” beginning March 31, bringing high-level legal instruction to a global audience.

The MOOC, the first law course offered through Duke University’s two-year-old partnership with Coursera, will address topics including genocide and humanitarian intervention, the right to life and capital punishment, the right to health and HIV-AIDS, and counterterrorism and human rights.

Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law, is an expert in the areas of international law and institutions, international adjudication, human rights, and international intellectual property law and policy. He is co-director of Duke Law School's Center for International and Comparative Law and a Senior Fellow with Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics.

As with other MOOCs, Helfer’s Coursera offering is open to anyone. He believes this universal accessibility could be particularly meaningful in the dissemination of information about human rights.

“Human rights are universal,” Helfer said. “They belong to every individual in every country in the world. They can be a tremendous source of empowerment and a tool for advocacy for legal, political, and social change. At the same time, human rights are often violated, sometimes on a widespread scale.

“What I’ve learned from practicing, teaching, and writing about human rights for the past 20 years is that it’s essential to understand how international law protects human rights and how international monitoring mechanisms can be used strategically and selectively to pressure governments to improve their respect for human rights – even if sometimes slowly or imperfectly. This course will allow me to share these insights with anyone interested in the topic, including those who want to understand how legal rules and institutions can help to promote political and social change.”

Duke announced plans in 2012 to begin offering courses for free on the Internet through Coursera, a California-based education company that provides a platform for universities to deliver online education. Enrollment in Duke’s first 10 Coursera offerings topped 725,000, with students from 200 countries. Students receive no credit for the courses, which include quizzes, discussion forums, and interactive assignments.

Duke Law Professor Nita A. Farahany is developing a MOOC through Coursera entitled “Genes, Brains and the Law.”

Helfer said his course could be useful to a variety of potential audiences, including human rights advocates, undergraduates interested in law school, and practicing attorneys interested in learning more about international law.

“An online open access course will enable me to explain the international human rights system to a wide audience of students, practitioners, activists, and anyone else interested in this important topic. I designed it to introduce the key legal rules and institutions of the international human rights system as well as the achievements and challenges that the system now faces.

“Those who enroll in the course will learn how human rights are protected in international law and the many different mechanisms—such as courts, investigators, and intergovernmental bodies—for monitoring whether those rights are respected or violated at the global, regional and national levels.”

To learn more about the course or to enroll, go to