An Avoidable Human Rights Disaster in the Dominican Republic

Posted in: Human Rights

For far too many people in the United States, the issue of “illegal immigration” evokes visions of people crossing the border from Mexico, intent on taking American jobs and using government services without paying taxes. Those images are either gross exaggerations or outright lies. For example, it is now well established that undocumented immigrants pay tens of billions of dollars in taxes in the United States each year, at the federal and state-and-local levels. Nonetheless, right-wing politicians in this country continue to stoke fear and hatred, and opposition to a “path to citizenship” has become a litmus-test issue in the Republican presidential contest.

As depressing as that ongoing problem is, it is important to remember that xenophobic, race-based discrimination also continues to cause problems elsewhere in the world. One of the most disturbing ethnic-fueled crises is occurring right now in the Dominican Republic (DR), which received an influx of Haitian refugees after a catastrophic earthquake in 2010. That refugee crisis inflamed long-simmering tensions between Haitians and Dominicans. The Dominican Republic is the richer of the two countries on the island of Hispaniola, and conflict between the two groups has existed for decades. Haitians tend to be poorer, even those ethnic Haitians who live in the DR, as they are pushed to the edges of the economy and live (at best) subsistence existences. Because Haitians tend to be darker-skinned, they are easily targeted for discrimination.

Many Americans saw the excellent 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” an Oscar-nominated dramatization of the events surrounding the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, including up to three-quarters of the targeted Tutsi population (as well as many Hutu who opposed the genocide that was being carried out in their name). The United Nations and the western powers were aware of the killing, but at crucial moments failed to stop or even slow the attempted genocide.

Although the Rwandan genocide has quite appropriately become an important touchstone to remind us of the consequences of inaction, in some ways its horrors dull the senses to other serious international crimes and humanitarian disasters. Anything less than the atrocities of Rwanda in 1994 can somehow seem like a minor event. What we need to remember is that early action can prevent matters from getting out of hand. And even if a situation does not (yet) involve mass killing, mass displacements are also serious human rights violations.

Interestingly, what is needed in the Haitian-Dominican situation today is not aggressive intervention of the sort that would have made all the difference in Rwanda. Instead, as I will explain below, the best approach for the United States now is simply to withdraw financial support for the DR security forces. Rather than rousing ourselves to do more, we can simply decide to do less. Before explaining how this would work, however, it is important to explain just what the government of the DR is trying to do.

Many ethnic Haitians have lived in the DR for generations. Although they are “Haitian,” they are Haitian in the same sense that I am Scottish, or that my wife is German. Imagine an exchange between an “American” and me:

The American: “You’ve been deemed not to be a real U.S. citizen, so you have to go back to where you came from.”

Me: “You mean … Connecticut?”

A: “No, where your father came from.”

M: “Oh, Ohio.”

A: “Grandfather, then.”

M: “Pennsylvania.”

A: “Great-grandfather?”

M: “Edinburgh.”

A: “Yeah, that one!”

Although it is possible to present this in a humorous way, stripping people of their citizenship—even people whose parents actually did live in another country—and forcing them to return to countries that might not even recognize them, effectively leaving them without a country, is a human rights violation. Yet in 2013, “the Dominican Republic’s highest court issue[d] a ruling that stripped hundreds of thousands of people of their Dominican citizenship, based on a retroactive reinterpretation of the country’s nationality laws.” There could have been no question whom this ruling would affect most, because “the vast majority of those impacted are of Haitian descent, particularly those born to undocumented parents between 1929 and 2010, with an estimated 200,000 people made stateless by the ruling.”

In response to some international pressure, the Dominican government has recently tried to respond to criticism, reportedly offering assurances that no Dominican-born person will be deported, and promising case-by-case adjudication of claims. Even so, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found in 2014 that the DR had engaged in “a systematic pattern of expulsions of Haitians and persons of Haitian descent based on discriminatory concepts, including collective expulsions.” Moreover, the case-by-case adjudications will require people at risk of deportation to produce documents proving where they were born, which is often expensive or impossible for this vulnerable, targeted population.

Isn’t International Law Hard to Enforce? Yes, but U.S. Law—and Funding—Is What Matters Here

In any international human rights dispute, it can be frustrating to try to figure out what could be done, even if there were the will to do it. It is not simply a matter of calling the FBI to arrest a domestic terrorist, or working with Interpol to track down an international fugitive. (Even those situations, of course, can become complicated very quickly.) We must often ask, for example, what happens if relevant international law does not exist, or if the relevant countries have not ratified the relevant treaties. What, in any case, can one country do about a problem in another country, within an international legal system that uses national sovereignty as the cornerstone of the law?

Fortunately, that problem is only in the background with respect to the current crisis in the DR. Although there are certainly difficult issues of international law in play, there is a law in the United States that permits (and, in some cases, actually requires) the American government to respond to human rights violations. The so-called Leahy Amendments grant the Secretary of State the authority to withhold funding from the security forces of governments that have violated human rights (or, to be more formal, for which there is credible evidence of a gross human rights violation).

In the current situation, the DR security forces are carrying out the illegal deportation orders, moving people into filthy and unsafe refugee camps on the border between the two countries. The letter below details other worrisome aspects of the current situation in the DR, pointing to a developing human rights catastrophe.

Unfortunately, the Leahy laws are riddled with exemptions and limitations, so it is probably not the case that the United States would be required under those laws to withhold funding.

Fortunately, there are other options. Most directly, the United States Congress could simply decide to exercise the power of the purse, declining to provide financial support to a regime that would use those funds to further a system of mass deportation. Even if current law does not require us to do so, this is an opportunity to pass an important new law.

As the saying goes, money talks. And no matter what the Dominican government might say in response to rulings by international tribunals, the prospect of losing millions of dollars of U.S. aid would focus that government’s attention in a way that talking never could. As I noted above, moreover, this would amount to the United States applying pressure by omission—that is, refusing to “meddle in the internal affairs of a sovereign country” to make that country understand that the United States cannot allow itself to be the enabler of that country’s human rights violations.

The Letter from Peace Corps Workers Who Have Returned from the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is the destination for large numbers of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. Three former DR-based Peace Corps Country Directors recently sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, urging the United States to enforce the Leahy Laws and stop financial assistance to the Dominican military and police. The letter was co-signed by 560 returned DR-based Peace Corps volunteers. Such a letter is unprecedented, yet it is a morally required statement of concern from people who have spent large amounts of time in the DR. Both The Nation and CNN recently provided positive coverage of the letter.

There are situations in which international diplomacy is nuanced and difficult. It seems clear that this is not one of them. We have an opportunity to use U.S. leverage to prevent a developing crisis, which has already inflicted suffering on thousands of people, from becoming worse.

Because of the importance of the letter from the Peace Corps volunteers, I am ending this column by reproducing that letter in its entirety:

Honorable John F. Kerry
Secretary of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

cc: Honorable Roberta S. Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs
cc: Honorable Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont

Dear Secretary Kerry,

As 560 returned Peace Corps volunteers and three Country Directors who served in the Dominican Republic, we are grateful for the privilege of having spent years living, working with, and learning from the Dominican people. It is due to our deep and abiding concern for the most vulnerable members of Dominican society that we are writing to you about the crisis of statelessness among Dominicans of Haitian descent. We urge you to end U.S. involvement in the violation of their human rights: enforce the Leahy Amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act and annual Department of Defense appropriations.

The Leahy laws state that no U.S. assistance shall be furnished to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if there is credible information that such a unit has committed a gross violation of human rights. Given the Dominican government’s disregard for international law with respect to the status of its citizens of Haitian descent; the violent track record of Dominican security forces receiving funding and training from the United States; and the Dominican Armed Forces’ readiness to execute a potentially massive campaign of rights-violating expulsions, we ask that the United States suspend its military aid to the Dominican government.

In 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Court issued a ruling (168-13) that effectively stripped hundreds of thousands of people, primarily those of Haitian descent, of their Dominican citizenship. This ruling stands in direct contravention of international human rights law—specifically the American Convention on Human Rights, which the Dominican government ratified in 1978. This convention enshrines the right to a nationality and prohibits its arbitrary deprivation. Many Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, including those whose families have resided in the Dominican Republic for generations, were rendered stateless and face forcible deportation to a country where many have no ties whatsoever. A subsequent Dominican law (169-14), which addressed the court’s ruling, further entrenched the negation of the right to citizenship on the basis of one’s place of birth, and retroactively conferred citizenship on the basis of the immigration status of one’s parents.

In 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled in a binding decision that the Dominican government practiced “a systematic pattern of expulsions of Haitians and persons of Haitian descent based on discriminatory concepts, including collective expulsions.” The decision called for redress to victims who suffered illegal deportations, the denial of identity documents, and arbitrary deprivation of nationality. The IACHR furthermore deemed Dominican Law 169-14 “an impediment to the full exercise of the right to nationality of the victims” and a violation of “the right to identity, and the right to equal protection of the law recognized in Article 24” of the American Convention on Human Rights, which are binding obligations.

The Dominican government’s dismissive reaction to the IACHR ruling demonstrated a “shocking disregard for international law,” according to Amnesty International. Dominican security forces have been tasked with implementing these illegal migration policies, according to the declarations of Dominican Defense Minister Máximo William Muñoz Delgado and the head of the General Directorate of Migration, Rubén Darío Paulino Sem. The security forces that appear poised to carry out mass deportations within the country, including the U.S.-trained border patrol agency, CESFRONT, have received more than $17.5 million in assistance from the United States since 2013, the year that the Constitutional Court handed down its ruling.

The Department of State has acknowledged that Dominican security forces have committed gross violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings and torture. In one instance, according to a 2013 State Department report, migration agents and National Police officers “forcefully entered the home of 31-year-old Haitian immigrant Jean Robert Lors during a mass repatriation round-up” and beat him so severely—allegedly “with the butts of their weapons”— that he died shortly thereafter. A “widespread perception of official impunity” for such egregious acts coupled with routine discrimination against Haitian migrants and their descendants makes it a virtual certainty that darker-skinned Dominicans will suffer severe violations of their human rights as a result of the government’s unlawful policies on migration and citizenship. Indeed, the State Department concluded that within the Dominican Republic, “the most serious human rights problem was discrimination against Haitian migrants and their descendants, including the Constitutional Tribunal’s September 2013 ruling.”

It is exactly this sort of financial assistance to security forces that the Leahy Amendments are designed to curtail, as the State Department demonstrated when it suspended police aid to Saint Lucia in 2013. If the United States is serious about protecting universally recognized human rights, we must no longer abet such actions in the Dominican Republic, much less be complicit in an impending intensification of human rights abuses. In our view, it appears impossible for the Dominican government to move forward with the implementation of its human rights-violating, internationally condemned citizenship laws without involving its security forces in yet more widespread and severe abuses.

We wish to clarify that we make our recommendation not in opposition to the people of the Dominican Republic, but rather against an official U.S. policy of funding and training Dominican security forces that are both responsible for gross human rights violations and positioned to commit many more abuses without a sharp signal from the United States that such practices are unacceptable. By continuing to offer its military aid to the Dominican security forces, the United States is undermining internal efforts by a variety of organizations and individuals in Dominican civil society to protect vulnerable people, defend human rights, and bring the country into compliance with international law. We urge you to suspend U.S. assistance to Dominican security forces and stand up for human rights in the Dominican Republic at this critical moment.

We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with your office about this matter; to this end, a small group of us kindly request a meeting with Assistant Secretary Jacobson at her convenience to further discuss our proposal and address any concerns you may have.


Art Flanagan, Peace Corps Country Director (2011-2014)
Romeo Massey, Peace Corps Country Director (2005-2011)
Dan Salcedo, Peace Corps Country Director (1999-2002)


One response to “An Avoidable Human Rights Disaster in the Dominican Republic”


    Hi Neil, We tend to know little or nothing about the Dominican Republic & Haiti, apart from their being amongst the world’s poorest nations, in the UK. Would you be interested in republishing this article in interLib (which is the magazine of Liberal International British Group)?