Does Greece have "odious" debt?

Alexis Tsipras wants Greece to stop paying odious debt. But does it have any?

"My five point plan": a phrase borrowed from Ed Miliband* may have helped boost the chances of Alexis Tsipras, leader of radical left-wing Greek party SYRIZA, which stormed into second place in the Greek parliament.

Admittedly, the Tsipras plan is rather more radical than Miliband's. It calls for:

  • Cancelling the technocratic former government's bailout terms, particularly its cuts to pensions and salaries.
  • Overturning their abolition of collective bargaining and other laws that attack workers' rights.
  • Changes to improve democracy and social justice, from removing MPs immunity to prosecution to overhauling Greece's proportional electoral law.
  • A public review of Greek banks.
  • A hold on all debt servicing, and an international committee examining the Greek deficit, particularly looking at whether any of the debt can be termed "odious".

The last point is the most interesting one. Odious debt is a legalistic term: It refers to debt run up by a former dictator, which a legitimate successor government can realistically argue ought not to be paid off. As a paper in the Duke Law Journal (via alphaville) puts it:

By enshrining a doctrine of odious debts as a recognized exception to the rule of state succession, some modern commentators have argued, a successor government would be able legally to repudiate the loans incurred by a malodorous prior regime. This, they contend, would have two benefits: it would avoid the morally repugnant consequence of forcing an innocent population to repay debts incurred in their name but not for their benefit, and it would simultaneously force prospective lenders to an odious regime to rethink the wisdom of advancing funds on so fragile a legal foundation.

The authors of the paper point out the problem with such a concept, though:

If this new version of the odious debt doctrine is to be workable, someone must assume the task of painting a scarlet letter "O" on a great many regimes around the world. Who will make this assessment of odiousness and on what criteria? The stakes are high. An unworkable or vague doctrine could significantly reduce cross-border capital flows to sovereign borrowers generally.

Their fears are proved right by Tsipras' argument. For all that the imposition by the EU of a technocratic PM on the Greek people was questionable democratically, the resulting government was hardly on par with the last one which brought odious debt into the public arena: Saddam Hussein's.

Even if Tsipras is making the weaker claim that debt left over from Greece's junta, which collapsed in 1974, ought to be cancelled (if there is even any outstanding), he would be on questionable grounds legally. The whole argument seems far more likely to be a way to announce a selective default without actually announcing a selective default. That or a cynical ploy to get elected.

We'll see the final outcome next Thursday, when the next round of legislative elections are rumoured to be pencilled in for.

*Probably not.

Alexis Tsipras, head of SYRIZA, at a press conference in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.