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Pakistan Debt: Default an option?

Nadeem M Qureshi

In 2008 when the PPP government of President Asif Zardari took office Pakistan's total foreign debt was about $40 billion. Today, at the end of the PPP government's term, it is $60 billion. Twenty billion dollars of new debt has been added.

As the Government of Nawaz Sharif begins negotiations with the IMF to seek more loans, the people of Pakistan need to ask two basic questions. The first is: What happened to this money?

By almost any economic indicator people are worse off today than they were five years ago. Unemployment and inflation are higher. Vital infrastructure - railways, roads, public transport, hospitals, schools, water supply and sewage systems - have deteriorated to unprecedented and unacceptable levels. It is almost as though the $20 billion has vanished into thin air.

Well, some of it has. Consider, for example, the single case of the purchase of Boeing 777 aircraft by Pakistan International Airlines in 2011. Transparency International Pakistan maintains that of the $1.5 billion paid for the aircraft, $500 million were diverted as kickbacks to government functionaries. Multiply this by dozens of multibillion dollar deals over five years, across different economic sectors, and it is clear that many of the billions taken in the name of the people of Pakistan have disappeared into private bank accounts.

Not all of the $20 billion is unaccounted for. Some of it is on rude display in the fleets of bullet proof luxury vehicles of politicians and bureaucrats. Less visible is the money spent on acquiring and maintaining the fleet of private jets at the disposal of the country's 'leaders' and their acolytes. Also hidden from view but widely reported are the luxurious lifestyles of the people's 'servants'. A distasteful example of this was the news that the government planned to spend Rs. 260 million to renovate the President's kitchen.

The second question that the people of Pakistan are entitled to ask is this: Should they be liable to pay back money taken in their name but used almost exclusively to enrich the ruling coterie? It is clear that the highly paid international bureaucrats who work for the IMF are not stupid. It cannot have escaped them that the money they are doling out is misused, or worse, stolen. Why then should the people of Pakistan pay for their wilful negligence?

This raises issues of legality and precedent. Is it lawful for a country to refute debt taken on by corrupt politicians? And, are there any precedents for this? The answer to both questions is yes.

The concept of odious debt was established in international law by Alexander Nahum Sack, a Russian born jurisprudence expert, in a paper published in Paris in 1927. Odious debt "is a legal theory that holds that the national debt incurred by a regime for purposes that do not serve the best interests of the nation, should not be enforceable. Such debts are, thus, considered by this doctrine to be personal debts of the regime that incurred them and not debts of the state." The doctrine further suggests that since odious debt is deemed the personal debt of the rulers in power at the time the debt was secured, recovery should be from their personal assets.

There are also several precedents in which countries have repudiated national debt. The United States set the first precedent of odious debt when it seized control of Cuba from Spain. Spain insisted that Cuba repay the loans made to them by Spain. The U.S. repudiated that debt, arguing that the debt was imposed on Cuba by force of arms and served Spain's interest rather than Cuba's, and that the debt therefore ought not be repaid. The debt was annulled.

In recent times, there is the example of Haiti. When the dictator Jean Claude Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, 66 US senators supported a resolution calling for cancellation of Haiti's debt on the grounds that the money was misused. In the end, half of Haiti's debt was written off.

By far the most effective use of the 'odious debt' doctrine in recent times is by President Rafael Correa of Ecuador. In 2008 he repudiated Ecuador's national debt of $ 3 billion and announced the country would default and fight creditors in international courts. He succeeded eventually in getting a 60% write off on Ecuador's debt.

Sadly, it is doubtful that Pakistan's current leaders will be able to take the IMF bull by its horns. They lack the competence, integrity and, yes the intelligence, to do so. What a tragedy for the poor people of Pakistan who will continue to pay for their leaders' larceny.

Nadeem M Qureshi is Chairman of Mustaqbil Pakistan. He can be reached on Twitter at: @nmq

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Publication:News Central Asia (Ashgabat, Turkmenistan)
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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