Statelessness and Nationality in the Dominican Republic

By Sarnata Reynolds

Wednesday’s conference on statelessness and the right to nationality in the Dominican Republic (DR) saw presenters from many countries and fields of work join in a constructive dialogue.

This example of statelessness, caused by the retroactive loss of nationality rights for Dominicans of Haitian descent in the DR’s new constitution, has been a major source of civil strife. It has left many without access to their rights, and has shaken their most basic sense of who they are and where they belong.

Without a doubt, some of the concerns raised by activists and officials during the conference were hard to express – or were challenged at times by other participants. But these exchanges were respectful and for that the organizers (including RI) were very grateful.

The day-long event involved multiple panels on the problem’s legal origins, its real-life impact on Dominican citizens, nationality law implementation, and the state of advocacy around this issue. So many important statements were made that it’s hard to pick just a few (and indeed, anyone interested in this issue can view the conference webcast, thanks to the Georgetown University Law Center). But to give you a sense of the dialogue, let me give you a few examples.

One of our panelists, Noemi Mendez, an attorney in the Dominican Republic, talked about the impact on her clients. These were individuals who held Dominican citizenship – or at least thought they did. But when they were told their status was being investigated they asked, “Who am I? If I’m not Dominican, who am I?”

Sonia Pierre, the head of the Movement of Dominico-Haitian Women described her own experience of the investigation as akin to being “yanked up by the roots.”

Officials from the UN, and the governments of the US, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic also made valuable contributions. David Robinson, the acting US assistant secretary of state for refugees, cited concerns about the retroactive denationalization of Dominican citizens. And he urged the Dominican government to “embrace the hyphen” of Dominico-Haitian identity, and to reconsider its position on retroactivity given the threat of statelessness.  

Representing the official position of the DR, Ambassador Anibal de Castro stated that his country was not applying its nationality law retroactively under a certain interpretation. Further, he declared that statelessness was not really an issue in his country, since the Haitian Constitution gives Haitian nationality to all persons born of Haitian parents wherever they reside. Personally, I would encourage Secretary Robinson and Ambassador de Castro to have a fruitful conversation on this point – perhaps during a baseball game, their countries’ shared national pastime.

In the end, a few recommendations arose out of the conference that the Dominican government should take on board. First, it should recognize that anyone born in the Dominican Republic on or before the passage of its new constitution is a citizen and should not be subject to investigation. Second, it must stop the retroactive application of its new nationality laws, which has already been found unconstitutional in three Dominican courts.

Third, if the government believes a person’s citizenship was obtained fraudulently, it must conduct its investigations in line with due process. Further, a person’s nationality rights must be maintained until a final decision is made: innocence must be presumed.

Finally, the government must disclose certain information when a person’s nationality is questioned, including why an investigation is occurring, who is being put in jail, what safeguards are in place to ensure citizens can challenge the government’s evidence, and when final determinations may be made.

To conclude, while the conference included many discussions about the exact definitions of statelessness, I don’t think this is the central question we should be asking. Instead, the key question is whether people have the ability to exercise their human rights.  If they don’t, then the obstacles they face are identical and regardless of how a person became stateless - and the same remedy should apply. While there may be disputes about the next steps for Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, there's no disputing the fact that everyone has the right to a nationality.