Excerpted From: Christine Jiha, A Deal with the Devil: French Extortion and Haitian Debt Recovery in International Law, 56 Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 905 (May, 2023) (327 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ChristineJihaIf you Google Image search “Haiti,” the results do not show images of crystal clear, blue Caribbean waters along white sand beaches, smiling schoolgirls walking home together, or vibrant scenes from Carnival. Instead, the search produces photographs of collapsed, unrecognizable buildings, civilians rioting in the streets against the government, families living in makeshift tents, and hundreds of people storming aid convoys to get anything they can. A longstanding political joke in Haiti for the past decade is that there are so many nongovernmental organizations in the county, each citizen could have their own. Haiti has more nongovernmental organizations present per capita than any other country in the world. This is the new Haiti--a country that notoriously cannot catch a break.

Still, Haiti did not become the poorest country in the Western hemisphere accidentally. Haiti, a small Caribbean island nation, holds the title for the first successful slave-led rebellion in history--a rebellion that inspired slaves across the Americas--yet has been paying for it ever since. After the recent assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, the international community sat in awe, wondering how circumstances had gotten this bad. How is it possible, many ask, that Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, with its booming tourist economy, healthcare system, and infrastructure? “Corruption” is usually the first word that comes to mind, and not without reason-Haiti has a long history of corrupt government officials that have ransacked the country for their personal gain. Even so, “another story is rarely taught or acknowledged: the first Black colony to free themselves from slavery were forced to pay for their freedom yet again-this time in cash.”

This Note seeks to explain Haiti's current economic and social crises through the lens of this “independence debt” imposed by the French, and to propose a system in which the state can seek redress to ameliorate Haiti's desperate economic circumstances. Part II of this Note will establish a contextual foundation by delving into Haitian history, encompassing the Atlantic slave trade, French colonization, and the Haitian Revolution, as well as exploring the immediate and long-term effects of independence. Part III presents the restorative legal argument that the original repayment contract was not only void ab initio, but the continued payment was contrary to international law principles well into the twentieth century after the adoption of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the UN Charter. Part IV explores the reparative legal argument that France dealt with Haiti in such a way in which Haiti has and continues to suffer and must be repaired for the wrong that was done. It also explores other similar country-country reparation agreements (Israel-Germany, Iraq-Kuwait, Great Britain-Kenya, and Germany-Namibia) and analyzes why each agreement is incompatible within the Haitian-French historical context. Lastly, it details current proposed solutions by the Haitian government, as well as hurdles that Haiti must overcome in order to achieve success in its quest for redress. Finally, Part V of this Note proposes a novel solution: the solicitation of an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion and the utilization of private arbitration mechanisms, which gives Haiti two avenues, private and public, to raise its claims. Additionally, it will explain why this is a superior way to assess and redress the colonial-era travesty that occurred in Haiti and identify how this solution is better-suited than the case-study solutions.

[. . .]

As the UN General Assembly said, “the remaining vestiges of alien and colonial domination, foreign occupation, racial discrimination, apartheid, and neocolonialism in all its forms continue to be among the greatest obstacles to the full emancipation and progress of the developing countries and all the peoples involved.” For one particular former colony, Haiti, the effects of colonialism have left such a permanent imprint on the country to the point where its people believe the island is eternally cursed. In reality, no spell nor human can ignore the deeply rooted effects of the 1825 independence debt anymore.

This Note has proposed a two-prong solution to address said effects. First, it has outlined two strong and plausible legal arguments: (1) the initial debt contract was void ab initio as it was signed under duress and coercion and was a contract of adhesion as a result of disproportionate bargaining power and (2) France breached its international obligations to not act with the threat of force and to encourage the self-determination of all peoples. Second, this Note has shown, through several case studies, that private bilateral settlements, domestic adjudication, and an intervening international body are improper solutions in the Haitian-French context. The most fitting and feasible solution is the solicitation of an ICJ advisory opinion, granted through a proper agency, or a private ad hoc tribunal, which will settle the independence debt question once and for all. In our current world, where former colonial powers are being tried by the media for their past wrongs, states like France must realize that addressing the long-lasting harms of slavery and colonialism does not set us back--it moves us forward.

Juris Doctorate, Vanderbilt University Law School; Bachelor of Arts, The George Washington University.