May 15, 2003
If there’s a silver lining to the war in Iraq, it is this: The arms merchants who supplied Saddam Hussein’s military machine will not be repaid. The foreign financiers who financed Saddam Hussein’s undemocratic regime will not be repaid. The foreign multinationals who bribed Saddam’s cronies to secure oil concessions in Iraq will lose these concessions.
In the past, merchants of death, crony capitalists, corrupt multinationals and others who profited at the expense of the citizens of an oppressed country had little to worry about. If the oppressors were overthrown and replaced by a legitimate government –as happened when South Africa’s apartheid regime was replaced by a democratic government under Nelson Mandela — the legitimate government would be saddled with the previous regime’s foreign debts. The legitimate government had little choice but to pay. If it didn’t, international lenders threatened to gang up on it, and their threats were credible: The U.S. and other western governments, as well as international agencies like the World Bank and the IMF, backed up the international lenders by acting as enforcers.
But now, the war in Iraq is changing all that: the financiers of unrepresentative, dictatorial regimes no longer have safe havens. The pro-democracy Iraqis who are expected to take over the government following the demise of Saddam’s regime, have declared that they will not recognize debts to arms merchants and others who helped Saddam oppress the people of Iraq. And because the U.S. government also doesn’t want to reward those who supported Saddam’s regime, the U.S. is quietly backing them up. Instead of repaying Saddam’s backers, that money will be used in Iraq’s reconstruction.
Repudiating these illegitimate debts — called “odious debts” in international law — will be a blessing not only to Iraqis but to other citizenries around the world. I know from our work with South Africans, for example, that their citizens’ movement to repudiate the apartheid debts will be renewed. The U.S. will no longer be able to insist that South Africans repay monies used to arm the apartheid regime against them when Iraqis needn’t do so. The story is the same with Argentinians fighting to repudiate debts left over from the military junta that oppressed them, with Indonesians working to repudiate Suharto’s debts, and with Filipinos working to repudiate Marcos’s debts.
The effect of repudiating odious debts will be more profound, still, because it will deal a body blow to all of the world’s unrepresentative regimes. Those who arm or finance Burma’s dictatorship, for example, or North Korea’s, or any of the other tyrannies around the world, will now know that their money can be lost as soon as the tyrannies fall. Financing oppressive regimes will no longer be good business. Oppressive regimes will lose their financial lifelines and, slowly but surely, they’ll be replaced with more democratic societies.
The Doctrine of Odious Debts, a concept first propounded in the 1920s and then forgotten, is fast becoming accepted. It is now endorsed by leading think tanks like the Brookings Institution, by scholars at prestigious universities such as Harvard, McGill, and Yale, and even by the IMF. But as many Probe International members will remember, when we first started the modern movement to recognize odious debts in 1991, with the publication of Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy, the concept was greeted with skepticism. “A brilliant concept,” the reviewers often said, “but it will never happen.”
Yet it has happened, because we refused to abandon an idea that so embodied natural justice. Through speaking tours, international conferences organized by citizens groups, the churches’ 26-million strong Jubilee Movement, and our own odious debts Web site (www.probeinternational.org), this odious debts movement has become mainstream. Hundreds of articles on the subject have been written, Odious Debts has been translated into Spanish and, just this year, into Indonesian, and dozens of our sister citizen and environmental groups throughout the Third World have endorsed it.
Through your past support, you have made all this happen, and for that I wish to thank you very, very much. But I also ask you to continue your support for this work because today, as the nitty-gritty details of how odious debts’ laws and regulations are being developed, we need to be more vigilant than ever. The Iraqi people deserve the right to repudiate their odious debts, and we are pleased they have U.S. support in this. But other oppressed people are just as deserving, and just as much in need of the support of the international community. With your help, we will redouble our efforts in the crucial period ahead, to make sure that people everywhere have the right to repudiate their odious debts.
Categories: Campaign Letters