Impoverished Haiti to recover stolen millions at last

By agency reporter
February 13, 2009

UK-based international development agency Christian Aid, along with and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, have welcomed the Swiss government’s decision to hand over approximately $6 million to Haiti. The money had been frozen in a Swiss bank account since 2002 in order to give the family of the former Haitian dictator, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier a chance to prove the money was legitimately theirs.

The Swiss Justice Ministry today announced it would pass the 7 million Swiss francs to the Haitian government for use in humanitarian projects, after the Duvalier family failed to prove its claim.

The money was frozen by the Swiss government as part of efforts to prevent the Swiss financial system being used to store stolen assets, in a process that has already seen hundreds of millions of dollars returned to Nigeria and the Philippines in recent years. Duvalier, who is believed to be living in exile in France, was removed from power in 1986.

The announcement is welcome news for Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, following devastation caused by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and Tropical Storms Fay and Hanna in August. These storms exacerbated the food crisis Haiti was already experiencing as a result of the steep rise in the price of rice, which led to riots earlier in the year.

Sarah Wilson, Caribbean specialist at Christian Aid, said: “This is an important first step. Unfortunately, this $6 million is not the only money illegitimately appropriated by the Duvalier family.

“Haiti is still struggling to recover from the widespread flooding caused by the summer storms. The agricultural sector suffers from years of under-investment. But the country is nonetheless forced to make massive payments towards the odious debt to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank built up during the Duvalier period.”

Nick Dearden, Director of Jubilee Debt Campaign, added: “This is great news for the people of Haiti in their struggle to get back what is rightfully theirs. However, Haiti is scheduled to give $10 million to the World Bank over the next six months to pay off its massive debts, many of which were contracted under Duvalier’s rule. So Haiti may get back some of the money that Duvalier stole, only to spend it, effectively, on paying off his debts.

"Some creditors have agreed to suspend most of Haiti’s debt payments in this time of crisis. The World Bank needs to do the same. We call on the UK Government, as one of the largest funders of the World Bank, to press for Haiti's debt cancellation to be completed immediately.”

Anne McConnell, of the Haiti Advocacy Platform Ireland-UK, added: "The restitution of these few millions to the people of Haiti will be of huge symbolic significance, and will send the message that dictators who steal from their citizens cannot get away with it - even after 20 years!"

The Swiss authorities have mandated that the funds must be used for humanitarian purposes. They will be unable to transfer the funds to Haiti immediately, as the Duvalier family will now have 30 days to appeal to Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Tribunal.

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