When Saddam Hussein's regime executed someone, it required the victim's family to pay for the bullets used. An appalling practice - but one which, Iraqis in the Jubilee Iraq campaign say, bears all too much resemblance to present-day demands that Iraq's people pay debts Hussein racked up during the Iran-Iraq war, which devastated the country and claimed around a million lives.
Western, Soviet and Arab creditors effectively bankrolled the Iran-Iraq war, and then in 2003 demanded that the Iraqi people take responsibility for the $130 billion debt. Since then, the Iraqi debt has been partially relieved, but only on the condition that the government reduce subsidies in the economically devastated country and pass a controversial oil law which could enable foreign companies to control much of Iraq's oil wealth.
Iraq isn't an isolated case. When rich countries cancel poor countries' debts they usually count this as charity, offset it against their aid budgets, and even require the recipients to implement often-harmful IMF economic conditions. They never consider whether they were wrong to make the loans in the first place.Around the world there are hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of examples, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where loans poured into the corrupt dictator Mobutu's personal accounts, and the Philippines, where a ridiculous, unusable nuclear power station was built on a geological fault line.
These are examples of the illegitimate or "odious" debt, an idea in international law that is gaining ground. The doctrine of odious debts would force creditors to behave responsibly when they make loans, ensuring there is genuine economic benefit to the recipient countries, and not simply handing out cash and credit to further political objectives or support exporting companies within the lender nation.
Momentum is building on odious debt, with campaigns being run by Jubilee Debt Campaign in the UK, Jubilee USA, CADTM and Eurodad in Europe, and Jubilee South representing people in debtor countries. Recently, Norway wrote off $80 million owed by Ecuador and others for ships exported on credit in the 1970s, admitting that the ships were "a development policy failure" and that therefore the seller "shares part of the responsibility for the resulting debts."
Creditors have tried for many years to ridicule the concept of odious debt as impractical, and handle debt relief on their own unjust terms. Now the tide is changing and 2007 is a critical year to add your voice to the debate - so check out the groups above, write to your representatives and demand that the chains of odious debt be broken, once and for all.
Justin Alexander is the coordinator of Jubilee Iraq. For more about odious debt and other problems with the current international debt regime, read Christina Cobourn Herman's article in the August issue of Sojourners magazine.