Alter-rights: Haiti and the Singularization of Universal Human Rights, 1804-2004

Nick Nesbitt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To rethink human rights when they have become little more than hollow ideology in the hands not only of nation-states but of the UN as well requires a radical change in perspective. This article will thus look back to one of the key moments in the history of human emancipation – the Haitian Revolution – to ask whether it might hold, in its unfulfilled potential, implications for overcoming the contemporary impasse of human rights discourse. Unlike the earlier French and US revolutions, which extended putatively ‘universal’ rights only to limited categories of citizens (typically white, adult, male property-holders) Haiti was alone in the early-modern world in its implementation of an unqualified, immediate ban on human slavery. For all its daring originality, however, the Haitian intervention never lived up to its historical promise. Both internal political divisions and the international pressure of contemporary slave-holding states such as France and the United States consistently undermined the Haitian initiative throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the second part of this article, analysis of this historical process will lead me to consider the ways in which the works of Edwidge Danticat and Peter Hallward stand as contemporary interventions that remain faithful to this unfulfilled legacy of 1804.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-108
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Francophone Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2009


  • Haitian revolution
  • Haiti
  • Toussaint Louverture
  • human rights
  • radical enlightenment
  • Robespierre


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