Imagine the following scenario: an oppressive regime has unjustly imprisoned you for the past 27 years.
You have become somewhat legendary during your time in prison, and, not long after your release, you are elected president of your country. You are proud and happy to be the leader of the new democratic government.
Unfortunately, the previous regime accumulated a significant amount of debt, and they used much of the loan money to oppress the majority of the population, relegating most citizens to second-class status and imprisoning many leaders of the political opposition (including you). The creditors now expect your government to repay this debt.
The scenario may sound far-fetched, but unfortunately, it isnít. The apartheid regime in South Africa, which repressed the majority black population and imprisoned black leaders such as Nelson Mandela, incurred significant debt. The money borrowed exclusively benefited the white minority. This money was spent on secret police forces and destabilization campaigns that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered countless blacks — not only in South Africa, but also in the neighboring countries of Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Zambia.
In order to keep opposition forces at bay, the apartheid government needed vast sums of money — money that was supplied to apartheid rulers under the guise of development and defense funds. Donors were well aware that the funds they loaned were not being used for the intended purpose; in fact, there was plenty of evidence that demonstrated that abuses were occurring, but money poured in nonetheless. The cruel tactics of the apartheid government raids, hoses, tear gas, blockades of vital goods, machine guns, tanks, attack dogs were no secret, yet the oppressive government continued to have access to funds.
Without these funds, the apartheid system could not have been sustained. Should the successor state, the new democratic regime, in South Africa be expected to repay the debt incurred for their oppression? "Of course not!" is likely to be our immediate reaction. And there is a doctrine in international law that supports that view the doctrine of odious debt.
Africa Action: www.africaaction.org
Odious Debts: www.odiousdebts.org
Norwegian Church Aid: Defining Illegitimate Debt: Understanding the Issues, 2002, www.nca.no