Applied Legal History: Demystifying the Doctrine of Odious Debts
"Odious debts" have been the subject of debate in academic, activist, and policymaking circles in recent years. The term refers to the debts of a nation that a despotic leader incurs against the interests of the populace. When the despot is overthrown, the new government — understandably — does not wish to repay creditors who helped prop up the despot. One argument has focused on whether customary international law supports a "doctrine" of odious debts that justifies the nonpayment of sovereign debts when three conditions are met: (1) the debts were incurred by a despotic ruler (without the consent of the populace); (2) the funds were used in ways that did not benefit the populace; and (3) the creditors were aware of the likely illegality of the loans. Advocates of this doctrine, which was synthesized by Alexander Sack in 1927, typically cite two examples of U.S. state practice for support: the negotiations between the United States and Spain following the Spanish-American War, in which the United States repudiated Cuba’s colonial debt, and the Tinoco arbitration, which repudiated certain debts of the deposed Costa Rican dictator, Frederico Tinoco. Those historical precedents do not support the first condition of Sack’s doctrine of odious debts, but do support the second two requirements. In addition to these two instances, United States history is rich with examples of debt repudiation by states. Those examples suggest a doctrine of odious debts that is broader and more flexible than the one written by Sack. Indeed, it may be appropriate to speak of the doctrines (not just doctrine) of odious debts.