Dominican civil society is starting 2015 with the challenge of avoiding a two-fold and serious setback on the subject of human rights. In two separate rulings, one from September 2013 and another from November 2014, the country’s Supreme Court eliminated the citizenship rights of more than 200,000 people (TC-0168-13) and threatened the authority of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (TC-0256-14). Both have been criticized by numerous domestic and international rights advocacy groups.
The first ruling retroactively denied birthright citizenship to people born in the country after 1929 to illegal immigrant parents. In practice, it has stripped hundreds of thousands of people of their citizenship, the vast majority Haitians – who represent 85% of the country’s immigrants. Now, they are prevented from working legally, voting and attending schools. The court ruling was condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has requested, among other things, that it be immediately repealed.
In a clear response to the condemnation, the Dominican court then declared, in sentence TC-0256-14, that the Dominican government’s acceptance – 15 years ago – of the Inter-American Court’s authority was unconstitutional.
Criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the new ruling not only contravenes the American Convention on Human Rights, but it also violates the fundamental principles of International Law. Furthermore, it blocks access by the entire Dominican population to the most important regional human rights protection body, making the people more vulnerable to violations.
“There is a real threat that the Dominican Republic will definitively withdraw from the American Convention and leave the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court, subsequently weakening the human rights protection system in the region,” said Camila Asano, coordinator of Foreign Policy at Conectas. “Brazil and other countries of the region need to take a stand in defense of the Court to prevent any setback, particularly on the topic of immigration, which is so fundamental for the region,” she said.
In February 2014, during the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, Conectas and the National Bureau for Immigrants and Refugees (MENAMIRD), a Dominican organization, drew attention to the issue of citizenship being revoked in the country. At the time, a letter was sent to the Brazilian State which, in its address during the review process, expressed concern over the crisis.
Many other letters and manifestos have been submitted in solidarity with the immigrants. More than 50 regional organizations, among them Conectas, signed a manifesto condemning the Dominican court ruling. Another document was sent to the officials present at the Meeting of High Authorities on Human Rights and Foreign Ministries of the Mercosur and Associated States, held in November 2014. Nearly 40 Dominican organizations also published an open letter to the authorities in the country expressing concern with the position of the court.
To better understand the consequences of these measures taken by the Dominican State, we spoke to William Charpantier, coordinator of the National Bureau for Immigrants and Refugees, and a participant at the 13th Colloquium organized by Conectas in 2013.
Conectas – What groups are most affected by the decision not to accept the Inter-American Court’s request for Law 168-13 to be repealed?
William Charpantier – The decision of the Dominican Republic to challenge the authority of the Inter-American Court does not only affect immigrants, but the entire Dominican population, who may end up without a regional International Court to protect their human rights after they exhaust all domestic remedies. It affects, primarily, people who do not have a voice, the most vulnerable population.
C – More specifically, how does the decision of the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic impact people? Can they have their citizenship restored?
WC – Specifically, the decision of the Constitutional Court creates the Naturalization Law and affects two groups of people who lost their citizenship and whose lives have been interrupted as a result, since they cannot study or work, much less have access to public services or engage in a legal transaction.
The first group are people whose birth is registered in the civil records and already have documentation and exercise civil and political rights. The law establishes that these people can have their citizenship restored. This restoration process is supposed to be simple, but in fact the state agency charged with applying this measure is not applying it the way the law intended and is only handling a very small number of people’s cases, without restoring their citizenship.
The second group consists of people born in the Dominican Republic, but who are the children of immigrants who were never registered because their parents didn’t have the proper paperwork. The new law states that for these people to regain their citizenship, they must first request a birth certificate from the hospital where they were born and present it to the Ministry of the Interior and to the Police. Equipped with these documents, they can register for a Foreigner’s Birth Certificate and then, after applying for naturalization, they can become Dominican citizens.
In either case, if a person’s parents were immigrants, even if they were born in the Dominican Republic, they are considered foreigners in the very country where they were born.
Moreover, the process is very slow and Haitian women are particularly affected, since the majority of them do not have documents from their country of origin and the costs of obtaining them are very high. There is definitively no political will to resolve this situation.
C – How did society react?
WC – Most legal experts and lawyers question the decision of the Dominican Constitutional Court. Several human rights and social organizations oppose the decision. The president has had to appoint a panel of constitutionalists to assess what to do, which is why we are awaiting a final decision from the executive branch.
C – What is organized civil society doing about it?
WC – We are joining together in a movement that will mobilize the international community, which is our main ally. Starting in January, we will resume our mobilization, denouncing the Dominican State nationally and internationally.
We already have a series of events organized and we have produced an open letter that will be forwarded to the public authorities.