The following originally appeared in the Miami Herald. James A. Goldston is executive director, and Indira Goris a program officer, at the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Imagine you are born in a country where you don't legally exist. The authorities refuse to issue you a birth certificate or an identity document. As a result, you are barred from school. Your family cannot receive public benefits to which other families with children are entitled. You are not recognized as a citizen, even though your family has lived in the country for generations. You and your parents live in constant fear that you may be deported. But to where? The country of your birth is the only country you have ever known.
Haitians Treated Differently
Such is the reality for thousands of children of Haitian descent—and many of their parents—living in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Constitution, like that of the United States, grants citizenship to everyone born on the territory. But this provision is systematically denied to ethnic Haitians—the victims of a pervasive and systematic prejudice that has persisted for decades without being challenged in the courts. Until now.
In 1997, human-rights lawyers filed a lawsuit challenging this policy on behalf of two girls, 1-year-old Dilcia Yean and 12-year-old Violeta Bosico, who had been denied birth certificates and citizenship benefits. The girls were helped by Sonia Pierre, a Santo Domingo-based activist who recently won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for her courage and dedication to human rights.
When Dominican judges rejected the lawsuit, the girls went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—a judicial arm of the Organization of American States—which is charged with enforcing human-rights standards throughout the Western Hemisphere. On Oct. 7, 2005, the court issued a landmark judgment finding that the Dominican Republic had denied citizenship on the basis of race and rendered children of Haitian descent effectively stateless.
The court gave the government one year—until Oct. 13—to apologize publicly, pay nominal damages to the two girls, publish the ruling in the national media and implement legislative and administrative measures to ensure equal access to birth certificates and school enrollment. As of today, the government has done nothing to comply.
To the contrary, Dominican officials have gone out of their way to defy the court. Five days after the ruling was announced, the minister of foreign affairs declared it "categorically unacceptable." The next day, the speaker of the Dominican Senate called it "defamation against the country." Shortly thereafter, the Dominican Senate adopted a resolution formally rejecting the ruling.
Despite the Dominican Republic's decision to flout the rule of law, the OAS and its member states have continued doing business as usual. At July's session of the OAS General Assembly (convened in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo), the government staved off public censure by vaguely promising to implement the judgment. In the months since, this empty declaration has yielded no visible action.
In the meantime, the on-the-ground situation has deteriorated. Officials have accused Dilcia's and Violeta's lawyers of being paid agents of an international campaign to discredit the Dominican Republic. Violent threats have forced Pierre and her children, and other defenders of ethnic Haitians, to leave the country. A wave of racial violence climaxed when a mob burned alive two ethnic Haitians in San Juan province in May.
What U.S. Should Do
One OAS member that has yet to be heard from is the United States, whose attention has been deflected from Latin America since 9/11. But Washington has several reasons to help the Dominican government do the right thing. These include historically close economic and political ties, with more than 680,000 Dominican immigrants and their offspring currently living in the United States. Among other things, the Bush administration should ensure that financial institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank assess compliance with the court's ruling as part of their future decision-making.
It is not often that victims of gross abuses get to present their claims in court, let alone secure a judgment as sound as this one. It is time for the regional community to make clear that its promises are worth more than the paper they are written on.