Editor's note: Grad student Tim Griffiths
will be filing regular dispatches from Santo Domingo this
summer. We'll publish his reports online here. This is Tim's
SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Salman Rushdie
writes in one of his novels something to the effect that,
in order to understand one life, you have to swallow the
whole world. The same might be said of the two legal cases
I am here to work on.
The human rights violations at issue are steeped in the
island of Hispaniola's grim history of oppression and the
seemingly irrepressible human urge to overcome it. Hispaniola's
past, in turn, is embedded in some of the cruelest chapters
in world history.
A proper contextualization of the cases would go back at
least as far as the African slave trade or perhaps even
to Christopher Columbus himself. It would include centuries
of animosity between Hispaniola's two occupants, Haiti and
the Dominican Republic, from the days of colonial rule through
Haiti's revolution and Dominican resistance, and continuing
on to the present day migration out of Haiti and the resulting
Dominican backlash. This summer, I want to gain a better
understanding of this history and if time permits, I will
try to share what I learn with you.
For now, suffice to say that Haiti and Haitian migrants
to the Dominican Republic are not viewed favorably by either
the Dominican government or the majority of Dominican society.
Nonetheless, there are estimated to be several hundred thousand
undocumented Haitians currently residing in the Dominican
Republic. The Dominican government wants to be rid of some
these undocumented migrants, or at least rid of their demand
on Dominican social services. However, there are many people
living in the Dominican Republic, Dominicans and Haitians
alike, with little or no proof of citizenship. And so in
practice, Dominican authorities often rely on factors like
a Haitian-sounding last name, Haitian ancestry or simply
darker skin color to identify suspected Haitians for denial
of services and even expulsion from the country. It is this
practice of massive and arbitrary expulsions or denial of
services without due process of law that forms the background
for the two cases.
The Education Case
I have yet to meet Daniela (not her real name), but from
what little I know of her, she is a truly remarkable young
woman. She wants to go to school. That, alone, is not what
makes her remarkable though. There are thousands of kids
like Daniela living in the Dominican Republic, kids who,
maybe on account of their Haitian ancestry, their dark skin
or perhaps a Haitian-sounding last name, are suspected of
being Haitian citizens and who, as a result, are shunned
from Dominican society. Doubtless many of these children
would, like Daniela, like an education. What makes Daniela
remarkable is that when the Dominican government told her
that she could not go to school, Daniela decided to stand
up for her rights.
Daniela was born of a Dominican mother and a Haitian father.
More significantly, she was born in the Dominican Republic
which means that, according to the Dominican constitution,
she is a Dominican citizen. The problem is - or was,
until she became involved with this case - she had no way
to prove it. As a result, Daniela was expelled from school.
There are two ways to prove to the government that you
are a Dominican citizen. One way is to show a birth certificate
as evidence that you were born in the Dominican Republic.
Like a large percentage of children born in the Dominican
Republic, no one ever issued a birth certificate to Daniela.
That might have been alright if Daniela could have proven
her citizenship by the other method: a long, tedious, bureaucratic
and essentially impossible procedure requiring the compilation
of documents and testimonials. In fact, very few people
have successfully proven their citizenship this way. Human
Rights Watch's most recent report on the situation of
Haitian migrants and their descendents in the Dominican
People" explains and documents this problem in
depth, including a discussion of Daniela's case.
Daniela's petition was rejected. Unable to prove her citizenship
but desperate to get an education, Daniela attended a local
evening school for adults. Going to night classes was dangerous
for Daniela. For these two years, Daniela also was separated
from her peers. Perhaps hardest of all, however, Daniela
must have felt a terrible sense of ostracization from the
very society and government of the country where she lives
Having exhausted every possibility within the Dominican
Republic to prove her nationality and return to school,
Daniela, with the help of a local organization called the
Movimiento de Mujeres Dominica-Haitianas (MUDHA),
International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Center
for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), took her
case to the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organization
of American States responsible for monitoring the implementation
of the Inter-American Declaration and Convention on Human
Rights. The Commission agreed with Daniela and, in view
of the irreparable harm she suffered with each day that
she was denied the chance to attend school with her peers,
the Commission ordered the Dominican government to reinstate
Daniela. In the fall of 2001, Daniela returned to school.
Shortly thereafter, the Dominican government issued a birth
certificate to Daniela and the other client in the case,
Gabriela (also not her real name). Gabriela received her
papers just in time to start school without interruption.
Then, just a year ago, the Dominican government announced
that it would no longer require citizenship status for attendance
at Dominican schools.
The Price of Fighting Back
In my mind, Daniela, Gabriela and their families are quiet
heroes. Unfortunately, the backlash against people of Haitian
origin or descent is so strong here that Daniela, Gabriela
and their families have suffered some recriminations for
their stand. That is why, for example, I will not be using
their real names nor posting photographs of them on this
site. I can only hope that their efforts and courage will
one day be recognized by their fellow Dominicans and that
they will feel that the vindication of their rights and
the rights of those like them has been worth the sacrifice.
The resolution of Daniela and Gabriela's cases thus far
is cause for celebration, but the fact that their situation
has stabilized is an exception to the overwhelming rule
for most children confronting Daniela and Gabriela's situation.
Much of what I will be working on with respect to this case
over the summer involves trying to ensure that the results
for Daniela and Gabriela are extended to all children in
a like situation. But, having laid out the basis of the
case, I will save an explanation of what remains to be done
for another day ...