France demanded crippling payments. Now Haiti has a legitimate claim for slavery reparations | Opinion
The movement for reparations for slavery has enjoyed some success lately, but there is still a long way to go before slavery’s harms to Africans and their descendants are acknowledged, repaired and compensated. Better integrating Haiti into the movement for reparations can accelerate the larger movement’s journey toward justice, while also helping Haiti secure sovereignty and democracy.
Haitians suffered many of the same harms that enslaved people and their descendants faced in the United States, the Caribbean and elsewhere — forced labor, murder, mutilation, sexual assault, family separation and all the other horrors of the slave ships and the plantations. Haitians, likewise, suffered after slavery’s abolition from systematic discrimination that kept Black people from learning, earning and voting their way out of poverty.
But the slave-owning powers that ran the world in 1804 when Haiti won its independence from France reserved some harms exclusively for the world’s first Black Republic — and the first country to abolish slavery.
The white-supremacist ideology that justified slavery could not survive the example of a stable, prosperous Haiti founded by self-emancipated slaves, so the powers-that-were, especially the United States and France, ensured that Haiti remained poor and unstable. The United States refused to even recognize the second independent country in the Americas until 1862. France recognized Haiti in 1825, but only after its fleet of warships in Port-au-Prince harbor forced Haiti to agree to compensate French slave-owners for their losses by threatening to destroy Haiti’s capital and reinstitute slavery.
Haiti’s coerced compensation to France — often called the Independence Debt — exceeded 10 years of government revenue. It included payments for the value of the emancipated Haitians themselves. Haiti was forced to finance the debt through French banks on predatory terms. It did not complete payments until the 1940s, after over a century of sacrificing investing in education, healthcare and industrial development. Haiti’s current poverty and instability is to a large extent the result — the intended result —of the Independence Debt.
The unique harm that the Independence Debt imposed on Haiti provides unique opportunities to claim reparations. The violence and threats that forced Haiti’s agreement to the debt fall squarely into the well-established legal theory of unjust enrichment. Haiti’s government unquestionably has standing to assert the claim. Calculating the damages for restitution is straightforward (Haiti’s government calculated the claim at $21 billion in 2003).
The example of a successful restitution claim by Haiti might be as dangerous for the former slave-owning countries as the example of Haiti’s 1804 independence was. The claim’s legal advantages might allow it to make a crack in the wall that has so far protected those countries from responsibility to return any of their unjust enrichment from slavery, which could generate a deluge of justice for all those harmed by slavery.
In fact, the United States and France fear the example of a restitution claim enough to once again ensure that Haiti remains poor and unstable. When Haiti’s elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide prepared a restitution claim in 2003, France and the United States stopped the potential legal proceedings by overthrowing the President. The Haitian governments that followed the ouster have dismantled Haiti’s democracy, allowed gangs to control half of Haiti’s territory and stolen enough money to leave half of all Haitians facing hunger. But in almost 20 years none of these governments have pressed the restitution claim, so all have earned reliable international support.
Last Friday, the University of Miami Law School symposium convened scholars from around the world to discuss Haiti’s restitution claim. The participants were optimistic about the strength of the legal claim, but pessimistic that Haiti would be allowed the freely-elected, sovereign government that pursuing a restitution claim requires. In fact, the same day, President Biden was in Canada trying to convince Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to lead a military intervention that Haitians reject as designed to prop up their brutal, repressive government.
Canada refused to lead the intervention, as the Caribbean Community did last month. The refusal likely derails the intervention, and gives Haiti an opportunity to reclaim its democracy. Supporters of reparations, especially in the United States, can help Haiti seize that opportunity—and advance their own chances for reparations—by insisting that their governments allow Haitians to vote for a government that would stand up for its citizens’ right to restitution of the Independence Debt.
Mario Joseph is Managing Attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Port-au-Prince. Brian Concannon is Executive Director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. Irwin Stotzky is Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law. All three are human rights lawyers.