Excerpted From: Brian Concannon, Jr., Kristina Fried, and Alexandra V. Filippova, Restitution for Haiti, Reparations for All: Haiti's Place in the Global Reparations Movement, 55 University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 80 (Fall, 2023) (112 Footnotes) (Full Document)

ConcannonFriedFilippovaThe movement for reparations due to enslavement and the myriad of related, ongoing harms is advancing globally--despite pushback--in nations such as the United States and the Caribbean. Haiti can accelerate the process of global reparations through its claim for restitution of the Debt coerced by France in exchange for Haiti's independence. This claim for restitution has unique legal advantages that can open the door to broader reparations claims worldwide. But Haiti cannot go it alone. After making a claim for restitution and, therefore, contributing to the global reparations movement, Haiti now needs that movement to help the nation reclaim its democracy from a corrupt, repressive regime propped up by the powerful countries that prospered through slavery and have undermined Haiti's sovereignty since its independence in 1804.

Haiti's claim for restitution of the Independence Debt is a subset of the claims that Haitians--like other people of African descent--have for reparations from slavery. These reparations claims seek both justice and accountability for a history of enslavement and colonialism. They also seek to prevent modern-day corollaries of that history, including discrimination rooted in anti-Black racism and limitations on genuine freedom and equality for Black individuals and communities. As part of this national and global reparations context, Haiti's claim for restitution of the Independence Debt brings to the broader fight distinct legal theories based on the unique harm imposed on Haiti by the slave-holding powers.

In 1804, Haiti defeated French leader Napoleon Bonaparte on the battlefield to win its independence. But the countries that dominated the Atlantic world at the time--especially France, the United States, Great Britain, and Spain-- maintained their power through slavery and white supremacy, something that would not survive if Haiti became free and prosperous. Therefore, they embarked on a centuries-long coordinated campaign to ensure that Haiti would not succeed, a campaign which included refusal of recognition or normal trade relations, the forced Independence Debt in 1825, and persistent economic and military interventions for over two centuries.

This coordinated campaign succeeded in keeping Haiti impoverished and sharply limiting its sovereignty. A measure of the campaign's success is that, with a single exception, no Haitian government has asserted the country's legal claim for restitution of the Independence Debt, despite the strength of the claim, popular support for it, and Haiti's need for funds. It was no accident that the single assertion of the claim was made in 2003 by a highly-popular democratic government as part of a broader effort to both enlarge Haiti's sovereignty and to challenge structural injustice in relations between former slave-owning nations and majority Black nations. A free Haiti with the resources to challenge powerful countries' global hegemony is exactly what former slave-holding states have always feared. It is also no accident that the same countries that dominate the Americas and the UN Security Council ensured that Haiti would not succeed through a coordinated campaign that included economic sanctions, support for Haitian elites trying to overthrow the popular government, and, finally, kidnapping Haiti's president.

Haiti's 2003 reparations claim was not abstract. The government made claims for money that would be used to build schools and hospitals, develop Haiti's economy, and allow the government to provide the basic government services that stable and prosperous governments provide. Haiti explained that their country lacked this infrastructure, unlike France, precisely because so much wealth was extracted from Haiti with the Independence Debt. This reframed the dominant narrative to explain how poverty, limited infrastructure, and weak governance had resulted from local corruption and natural disasters, to give appropriate weight to the contributions of white supremacy, from slavery to the Independence Debt to current economic predation.

Haiti's reframing of the narrative demonstrated how decades of forced debt, predatory financing, and foreign interference drained Haiti's economy, severely limited its capacity to invest in social services, and forced reliance on foreign aid. A New York Times investigation into the debt estimated that it cost Haiti between $21 and $115 billion (USD) in economic growth. If the countries and institutions responsible for implementing such debts meet their legal obligations for reparations and restitution, Haiti can meaningfully invest in those missing services and in sustainable, Haitian-led development.

As framed above, Haiti's damages from the Independence Debt can be calculated more easily than other historical reparations claims. The amount that Haiti paid to France is clearly established. Reasonable minds might differ over the applicable interest rates or how to best calculate opportunity costs, but economists and courts make those decisions regularly, and it should be relatively straightforward to come up with a reasonable damage amount after a democratic debate. Haiti's claim also has no standing issues, which has proven an obstacle to other reparations claims when courts ruled that the plaintiffs before them could not establish that they were personally injured by slavery. In Haiti's case, the government was party to the original coerced agreement and suffered the damages incurred by the Independence Debt.

Haiti's reparations claims--like those of other people of African descent--did not stop accumulating with emancipation but include subsequent and ongoing harms such as continued economic and political interference. In Haiti's case, the harms include powerful actors' helping to install and prop up successive corrupt governments favorable to foreign interests and unresponsive to the Haitian people. The resulting weakening of democratic institutions, unchecked extractive practices, and corruption have left Haiti in a cycle of crises, of which the current catastrophic situation is only the latest manifestation. In their reliance on international support for maintaining power, the foreign-supported Haitian governments will also never raise a reparations claim. Democratic self-determination by Haitians without foreign interference is therefore a necessary part of reparations-related mobilization.

Haiti's revolution was pivotal to demonstrating that at the core of the global reparations movement is an understanding that slavery is a profound violation of human rights. As that movement surges, Haitian voices-- too often marginalized through language, geography, and impoverishment--have much to offer and should be actively recognized. Haiti's restitution claim could also serve as a catalyst for fostering legal pathways to monetary compensation for people of African descent, as well as other measures necessary for repair, healing, and justice as part of a global reckoning with the harms of slavery, colonialism, and anti-Black racism. In turn, Haiti needs the support and energy of the global reparations movement to rally behind its claim for restitution and support for the predicate of democratic self-determination.

This paper demonstrates how Haiti's restitution claim can contribute to the broader reparations movement. It begins by offering an overview of the relevant history and legal theory of the restitution claim (Section II) and the Haitian government's 2003 effort to assert the claim (Section III). The paper then discusses the efforts--by the same countries that tried to make Haiti's independence fail two centuries earlier--to prevent Haiti from claiming restitution and asserting its sovereignty (Section IV) and explains how the broader reparations community can advance the reparations movement by helping Haiti regain the democracy it needs to assert its restitution claim (Section V).

[. . .]

There is a well-worn Haitian proverb, “men anpil, chay pa lou,” or “many hands make the load light.” Right now, the load imposed on Haiti by centuries of white supremacist policies--including the Independence Debt--is heavy. A stable, democratic government--one willing to assert the restitution claim-- seems out of reach for many, both in Haiti and abroad.

But Haitians have been putting their hands together to carry impossible loads for over two centuries, as Napoleon found out in 1803. They have a history of winning battles no one thought could be won, by refusing to give up. Haitians will win their fight for restitution too, but their friends outside Haiti who care about reparations can help them win sooner and at a less horrific cost by lending their own hands to the fights for both the restitution claim and the democracy that asserting the restitution claim requires. In doing so, the reparations community can help themselves, by giving Haitians the opportunity to make their full contributions to the reparations movement.

Executive Director, Institute for Justice and Democracy. J.D., Georgetown University Law Center; B.A. Middlebury College.