Sovereign Finance and the Poverty of Nations
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Sovereign Finance and the Poverty of Nations

Odious Debt in International Law

Yvonne Wong

This important and timely book explains the legal principles and politics involved in the issue of odious debts, and sovereign debt arrangements more generally.
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Chapter 1: The Odious Debts Doctrine: An Overview

Yvonne Wong


WHAT ARE ODIOUS DEBTS? The term ‘odious debts’ has been quite fashionable of late. It is so often mentioned by journalists, scholars, and NGO types that it has become rather common. Yet this was not the case a few years ago: The phrase was still being used in quotation marks, symbolizing its relative rarity, its need for further clarification. But those days are long gone. Today the words ‘odious’ and ‘debts’ are used together freely, without quotation marks, without explanation, their pairing no longer extraordinary or exceptional. From the Irish Times1 to the Los Angeles Times2 to the Jakarta Post,3 from Archbishop Desmond Tutu4 to Jim Harkness of Minneapolis’s Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy,5 the term odious debts has found its way into the mainstream. Yet, to the uninitiated, to the newcomer, is the term self-explanatory? Using basic dictionary definitions, one could hazard a guess at its intent – vile or revolting loans. Indeed, various journalists, activists, scholars, and public officials have given it this meaning. However, such a simple interpretation of the term forgets its origins, and its once loftier goals. When still in quotation marks, odious debts was more than merely a description, it was a new legal doctrine, a new social consensus, a revolution. Does the loss of quotation marks mean the dream has been realized, or is over? And just what was the original dream? There are various tales about the origins of the term, but the story told most often goes like this:...

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