Noreena Hertz: So why, then, must Filipinos pay for Imelda's shoes?

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The Independent Online

After months of wrangling, the Paris Club (the cartel of 19 major creditor nations including the United States, Canada, Russia, Britain and various other European countries) finally made a decision on the issue of Iraq's outstanding debts. "This is not a precedent for any other case," the German finance minister Hans Eichel was quick to stress as soon as the deal to cancel up to 80 per cent of Iraq's debt was announced. "Iraq is a special situation."

After months of wrangling, the Paris Club (the cartel of 19 major creditor nations including the United States, Canada, Russia, Britain and various other European countries) finally made a decision on the issue of Iraq's outstanding debts. "This is not a precedent for any other case," the German finance minister Hans Eichel was quick to stress as soon as the deal to cancel up to 80 per cent of Iraq's debt was announced. "Iraq is a special situation."

Methinks Herr Eichel doth protest too much. Because a precedent has now been set: Iraq's debts haven't been cancelled because Iraq is the most highly indebted or poorest country in the world; others can claim that status. They have been cancelled because of the implicit recognition on the part of the international community that monies lent to Saddam Hussein were by and large, as the US Treasury Secretary John Snow has said, "odious". That is, they were lent to a tyrannical dictator, were not used in the interests of the people, and the lender in all reasonableness should have known that this would be so. As the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, has echoed: "The vast majority [of our debt] is 'odious' debt, used to build up the war machine of the ousted regime, largely through arms purchases supported by the lending countries."

And while Eichel, and undoubtedly most other creditors, might like to view the Iraqi case as "special", we all know how commonplace loans to tyrannical and oppressive regimes have been. Mobutu of Zaire, Abacha of Nigeria, Suharto of Indonesia, Marcos of the Philippines, the 1970s military junta of Argentina, the apartheid regime of South Africa ­ all are examples of oppressive regimes bankrolled by creditors who continue to call these loans in to this day.

Which means that if the Iraqi people shouldn't have to pay for the knives that Saddam used to slaughter them, which of course they shouldn't, then neither should the Congolese people have to give up a third of their pitiful government revenues to pay back monies borrowed by Sese Seko Mobutu, which, among other things, were used to charter Concorde for private Parisian shopping sprees. Nor should the Filipinos have to pay for Imelda Marcos's shoes, nor the Argentinians for the monies stolen from them by a regime that "disappeared" tens of thousands of people. What is good for Iraq must be good for the rest of the world.

And while creditor nations are likely to strongly resist proceeding any more in this direction, some debtor nations are initiating moves themselves. Only last week the Argentine Congress debated a Bill seeking to repudiate the odious foreign debt contracted during the military dictatorship of 1976-83. There are rumblings in the Philippines to nullify part of Ferdinand Marcos's debts for similar reasons. Momentum is building in this direction, whether creditors like it or not.

Of course there is a legitimate concern that the cancellation of such odious debts might end up giving present-day corrupt or illegitimate regimes the resultant benefits, rather than the people. But we can create mechanisms to deal with this. The challenge facing the international community is how to establish a fair and transparent process to rule on issues of odiousness and legitimacy. If it chooses instead to allow justice to be so blatantly politicised, then countries such as Argentina, the Philippines, South Africa, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia might just think it worthwhile to start provoking Bush. For it cannot be a matter of chance that the only country which has been singled out for such "special" treatment, is the one that the United States has just invaded.

Safer sex, minister

At a time when the Child Support Agency has revealed that only half of Britain's 750,000 single parents (predominantly mothers) are getting what they are owed by their dead-beat former partners and 120,000 lone parents are receiving no payments at all, David Blunkett's commitment to his role as a father makes a distinct change. Instead, the Home Secretary is being pilloried for wanting to be certain who is the father of his former lover Kimberly Quinn's children, one of whom is yet unborn.

How selfish of him to want to ruin her family, columnists wrote. How wrong to drag the children through the courts. But why should Blunkett, by establishing paternity, ruin Quinn's family any more than it already has been? And wouldn't Blunkett's walking away from the situation be much more damaging for the children, if one or both do prove to be his? Shouldn't we be commending him for showing he's willing to take his parental responsibilities seriously?

And, until all the facts of the case are established, I shall wonder what any of this has to do with Blunkett's ability to be an effective home secretary. I'm no fan of his extremely illiberal policies, but the separation of state and boudoir should surely be sacrosanct. What does worry me is that Britain's most senior politicians seem to have completely forgotten about birth control. What with Blair an unplanned father at 47, and Blunkett evidently not having practised safe sex, what message is that giving our youth? Whatever his next job may be, it shouldn't be at the Department of Health.

It's time to go public about my addiction ­ to The X Factor and the fantastic Musicality. I just love the format of thousands of unknowns, some of whom have huge raw talent, working their way to a coveted star spot. Their struggles and disappointments move me. Their singlemindedness and humility inspire me. Their triumph elevates my mood. I have favourites who I cheer and champion. And on The X Factor, yep, I do religiously vote.

This being so, you can imagine my excitement when I arrived at the Royal Opera House on Monday to see Puccini's La Rondine and discovered that prima donna Angela Gheorghiu would not be performing and instead, the unknown and inexperienced Katie Van Kooten would, for one night only, be filling her shoes. What could be better, X Factor and Musicality combined before my very eyes? Some of the audience were disappointed, but I was delighted and keen to learn how little she had done. "We could be seeing the next big thing," I whispered to my friend. And I think we did see just that. Van Kooten looked beautiful, her voice was sublime, her acting authentic and, most wonderfully for me, when she took her bows, her wide-eyed smile revealed just how excited and overwhelmed she was by the deafening applause.

Human rights is the new black. Amnesty's 21st-century extravaganza in King's Cross last week in support of its new Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch was attended by London's glitterati. Unlikely advocates for the cause perhaps. Rather worthily I did try and engage some guests on issues relating to the arms trade, refugees, and Scott Peterson's death-penalty-by-jury trial in California... but there are only so many blank stares a girl can take. But whether London's trendies were out en masse because Thursday was the "ticket", or because they have the faintest idea of what Amnesty does, the upshot was more than £100,000 raised. However it has come about, if human rights is in vogue, then that must be a good thing.

Janet Street-Porter is in the jungle

Noreena Hertz is the author of 'IOU: The Debt Threat and Why We Must Defuse It' (Fourth Estate)

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