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The Haitian Independence Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

The Haitian Independence Debt of 1825 is perhaps the most odious in the history of sovereign debt. France agreed to grant recognition to the Haitian state in exchange for a massive indemnity payment, ostensibly intended to compensate French plantation owners for losses suffered during Haitian revolution. With French gunboats lurking in port and offshore, the French imposed a massive and unpayable debt burden equal to roughly 5 times the annual French budget.

Surprisingly, the literature on odious debt pays fairly little attention to this episode. Perhaps this because the doctrine of odious debt was developed with a view towards borrowing by a despot who is subsequently overthrown. Must the populace repay money borrowed to oppress it? Thus, when Haiti does show up in the odious debt literature, the question typically involves debts incurred by the despotic Duvalier regimes. The Independence Debt, by contrast was incurred in the context of a colony escaping the control of an imperial power, and the modern odious debt literature generally ignores this context. We discuss this in a recent Clauses and Controversies podcast with the wonderful Gregoire Mallard, that should be out soon.

This semester, we asked students in our international debt class what they would say if either the French or the Haitian governments came to them today, asking for advice on whether Haiti had a viable legal claim arising from these 1825 events.

It is easy to imagine barriers to such a claim (e.g., the difficulty of establishing jurisdiction, the statute of limitations). We wondered if students would take the easy route and simply concede that these barriers are insurmountable. (Who could blame them, given the exhaustion of learning on Zoom?) To our delight, while students took these barriers seriously, they worked very hard to articulate viable legal claims that Haiti might bring notwithstanding the passage of time.

Five of the student groups have posted their drafts on ssrn.com, and we recommend them to anyone interested in this topic. We are biased, but we think each paper advances, in some important way, the discussion of the legal viability of a claim against France. Each also resulted from a lot of work, which was compressed into about a month and a half. So we’re super proud of their effort and the resulting product.

Here are links to the papers that have been posted so far. More may be coming.

Leila Hatem, Clare Holtzman & Zach Pollack (Unjust Enrichment in the ICJ as a Path to Recovery For Haiti: Why the Independence Indemnity Was Invalid Under International Law). Link here.

Mandy Boltax, Thomas Boulger & Tyler Miller (The Haitian Independence Debt: A Case For Restitution). Link here.

Kathy Fernandez, Kristen Casey & Nikoleta Nikova (France’s Overdue Debt to Haiti). Link here.

Austin Hart (The Haitian Independence Debt: A Memorandum to the Haitian Government). Link here

Ruby Wang (An Uphill Battle: Restitution for the Haitian Independence Debt). Link here.

For inspiration, we owe a debt to our wonderful and brilliant legal historian friend, Julia Rudolph, who came on our podcast to do an episode laying down the basics. And we also owe Ira Kurzban, Brian Concannon, and Jacqueline Charles for giving us background on Haiti’s past attempts to obtain some measure of recovery. (Julia’s podcast is available here and Jacqueline’s is available here.)

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