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Statelessness in the Dominican Republic and What It Says About International Law

By: C. Nicholas Konetski 

Blog Category: International Law & Race

For most Americans, proving their citizenship is not a difficult task. For example, if I want to prove that I am a U.S. citizen, I can simply show my birth certificate or passport. If I cannot find either of these documents, I can obtain a certified copy from the appropriate agency. This task, however, would be a lot harder if the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that required these agencies to deny my request for a copy and inform me that those documents should never have been issued to me in the first place. A similar situation is essentially what is happening to thousands of Haitians with Dominican citizenship.

As a result of a recent decision by the highest court in the Dominican Republic, over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent could lose their citizenship. The Court’s ruling is based on the claim that their birth certificates are invalid due to “irregular circumstances.” The background for this decision dates back almost 100 years, during a time when thousands of Haitians migrated to the Dominican to work in the sugar industry. Until recently, birthright citizenship, or jus soli, was followed by the Dominican government. Under jus soli, any child born to a Haitian migrant worker was automatically a citizen of the Dominican Republic.

Over the next decade, Haitians enjoyed both citizenship and work. Naturally, they developed many ties to the Dominican Republic. Towards the end of the 20th century, the sugar industry came to a halt, leaving thousands of Haitians without employment. This surplus of idle workers sparked a feeling of animosity among the Dominican people towards the Haitian race. In response to these feelings, the Dominican government informally began denying citizenship to Haitians that were born there and deportations began to rise. A few years later, in 2007 and in 2010, the government reformed its constitution to no longer accept birthright citizenship. Even worse for the Haitian migrants, the government decided to apply these reforms retroactively. This meant that after 1929, any citizen who obtained their citizenship through jus soli was not actually a citizen because their birth certificate was given under “irregular circumstances.”

The effects of these constitutional reforms and the recent high court decision are being felt by thousands of Haitians who have now become stateless. Most of these people, having spent their whole life in the Dominican Republic, have never even been to Haiti and are unable to obtain Haitian citizenship. Furthermore, any child born during this time is unable to be registered and therefore may not have even have documentation to prove their existence.

The decisions of the Dominican government have been heavily criticized on an international level. The Inter-American Commission has had these issues brought to its attention and has spoken out against the government’s actions. In addition, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the U.S. Department of State, have both denounced the unjust treatment of these Haitians. Still, nothing has been done to effectively solve the problem.

The injustices that are occurring in the Dominican are just another example of the shortcomings of International law. The right to nationality, which has seemingly been lost for these Haitians, is one that is guaranteed by the Inter-American Convention. Unfortunately, because of under-funding and the lack of an enforcement mechanism, the Inter-American System cannot adequately protect that right. Furthermore, international cases and complaints often move too slowly to evoke change, which has been a problem in some of the cases against the Dominican government. The various treaty bodies within the UN can issue reports and comments, but while they are persuasive, they are not binding.

Thus, there is a problem not only with the situation in the Dominican Republic, but also with the ability of the international community to effectively respond to these problems. In order to put an end to the racial and ethnic discrimination by governments throughout the world, international law, as well the organizations that have a duty to uphold it must be strengthened.

The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Widener Journal of Law, Economics & Race. 


Veronica Aragón, Statelessness and the Right to Nationality, 19 Sw. J. Int’l Law 341 (2013).

Julia Harrington Reddy, Don’t be Fooled by the Dominican Republic’s Judicial Laundering of Racism, Open Society Justice Initiative (Mar. 11, 2014), available at http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/dont-be-fooled-dominican-republicsjudicial-laundering-racism.

Natalia Lippmann Mazzaglia & Pedro F. Marcelino, Migratory Policy as an Exclusionary Tool: The Case of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, 3 Laws 163 (2014).

Mark Kurlansky, Dominican Republic Makes Racism the Law, Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines (Jan. 6, 2014), available at http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/dominican_republic_makes_racism_the_law_20140106.

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