France's Debt of Dishonour to Haiti

After Haiti won independence, France extorted compensation for its slave-owning colonists. Now Nicolas Sarkozy must repay it

Nearly seven months after a devastating earthquake killed upwards of 250,000 people in Haiti, UN special envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton told the Associated Press
(AP) that international donors have yet to make good on their promises
of billions of dollars to rebuild the ravaged country. Haiti's
rebuilding could cost $14bn, according to a recent Inter-American Development Bank study.
Yet only "five countries - Brazil, Norway, Australia, Colombia and
Estonia - have so far provided $506m, less than 10% of the $5.3bn
pledged for Haiti at a March donors' conference," according to AP.

Monday, dozens of leading academics, authors and activists from around
the world propose a bold solution to this desperate financial shortfall.
Why not reimburse Haiti for the illegitimate "independence debt" it paid France?

In an open letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy published in the French newspaper Liberation,
90 leading academics, authors, journalists and human rights activists
from around the world urged the French government to pay Haiti back for
the 90m gold francs Haitians were forced to pay as a price for their
independence. (Full the sake of full disclosure, I am no impartial
observer of the proposal: I helped draft the text of the letter, and
played no small role in soliciting the signatures. In fact, the scores
of intellectuals I contacted needed little prodding to sign on.)

are "powerful arguments in favour of the restitution of the French
debt," Harvard medical professor Paul Farmer, who was recently appointed
deputy UN special envoy to Haiti, pointed out in his testimony
in the 2003 hearings in France on Haiti's independence debt. This
historic payment was patently illegitimate, and, on several different
scores, it was also illegal, according to a 2009 paper produced by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

to independence, St Dominique - the country that is now Haiti - was
France's most profitable colony, thanks in no small part to its
particularly brutal system of slavery. In 1791, the slaves revolted, and
in 1804, after defeating Napoleon's armies, founded the world's first
black republic.

Following Haiti's independence, former French
slave-owners submitted detailed tabulations of their losses to the
French government, with line items for each of "their" slaves that had
been "lost" with Haitian independence. In 1825, the French King, Charles
X, demanded that Haiti pay an "independence debt" to compensate former
colonists for the slaves who had won their freedom in the Haitian
Revolution. With warships stationed along the Haitian coast backing up
the French demand, France insisted that Haiti pay its former coloniser
150m gold francs - ten times the fledgling black nation's total annual

Under threat of a French military invasion that aimed
at the re-enslavement of the population, the Haitian government had
little choice but to agree to pay. Haiti's government was also forced to
finance the debt through loans from a single French bank, which
capitalised on its monopoly by gauging Haiti with exorbitant interest
rates and fees.

The original sum of the indemnity was
subsequently reduced, but Haiti still disbursed 90m gold francs to
France. This second price the French exacted for the independence
Haitians had won in battle was, even in 1825, not lawful. When the
original indemnity was imposed by the French king, the slave trade was
technically illegal; such a transaction - exchanging cash for human
lives valued as slave labour - represented a gross violation of both
French and international laws. And Haiti was still paying off this
"independence debt" in 1947 - 140 years after the abolition of the slave
trade and 85 years after the emancipation proclamation.

lawsuit launched by the Haitian government to recuperate these extorted
funds was aborted prematurely in 2004, with the French-backed overthrow
of the government that had had the temerity to point out that France
"extorted this money from Haiti by force and... should give it back to us
so that we can build primary schools, primary healthcare, water systems
and roads".

The French government was similarly quick to suppress a Yes Men-style prank announcement last Bastille Day pledging that France would repay Haiti. On 15 July, the day after the hoax, a spokesperson for the French ministry spokesperson told Agence France Presse that the French government was pursuing possible legal action against the pranksters.

With 1.6 million people - over a sixth of Haiti's population
- still homeless after the earthquake seven months ago, justice would
surely be better served if the French government instead devoted these
public resources into starting to pay Haiti back.

Given the
current economic crisis in France, restitution of the Haitian
independence debt would be no easy task. When the indemnity money Haiti
paid France is adjusted for inflation and a minimal interest rate, its
value is well over EUR17bn. (In fact, in an interview on France 24, Ottawa historian Jean St Vil put the current figure at $40bn.)

it is a demand that many would agree is morally, economically and
legally unassailable. But heck, don't take it from me. Instead, why not
ask MIT professor Noam Chomsky, author Naomi Klein, Princeton professor
Cornel West, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, French philosophers Alain
Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Ranciere, and several members of
parliament in Quebec, Europe, France and the Philippines. In their view,
President Sarkozy is bound to make restitution to Haiti for France's
ill-gotten gain.

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