Remembering Sonia Pierre, Human Rights Defender

Sonia Pierre, a tireless advocate for the rights of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, died suddenly of a heart attack on Sunday, December 4, at the age of 48. Liliana Gamboa and Indira Goris of the Open Society Justice Initiative both worked closely with Sonia.

There seem to be simultaneously too many and not enough words to describe Sonia Pierre. Born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian migrant workers, she emerged from the deprivation of her native batey Lechería to dedicate her life to human rights and social activism. At a very early age, Sonia was outraged by the  indignities faced by her parents and all Haitian migrants like them: economic deprivation, social and political marginalization, and public and private racism. At age 13 she was arrested for leading a march to demand rights for sugarcane cutters. Thus was born a magnetic, tireless and dedicated social activist.

As she grew older, Sonia  realized that this discrimination did not just affect Haitian migrants. Migrants’ children, like herself, faced similar discrimination and deprivation, despite being born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Her desire to promote and protect the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent led her to establish the Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas (MUDHA). Her determination to raise awareness about the government’s complicity in her community’s deprivation got her branded a liar, a traitor, a foreign agent and even a terrorist by her fellow countrymen. In the face of their slander and their threats, she was defiant, taking her message and demands to the halls of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

No aspect of Sonia’s work elicited more vitriol from Dominican xenophobes and nationalists than her campaign for equal access to nationality. Starting in the 1990s, she challenged the Dominican government’s effort to deny and deprive Dominicans of Haitian descent their lawful right to Dominican nationality, winning the landmark Yean and Bosico v. Dominican Republic case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which recognized the right to Dominican nationality to all children born in the Dominican soil regardless of their parent’s migratory status. This campaign was the substance of our institutional partnership, as the Justice Initiative and MUDHA collaborated to document and contest recent legislative and administrative changes that have deprived thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their nationality rendering them effectively stateless.

This was the topic that worried Sonia in her last days. Just two days before her untimely death, the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court handed down a judgment in the Emildo Bueno v. Junta Central Electoral which upheld the government’s policy of discriminatory and retroactive denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent. Meeting with her on Friday, December 2nd, about the next steps in the case and the overall campaign, we had no idea that it would be our last interaction with the formidable activist.

But although she was the figurehead for the movement against discrimination of Dominicans of Haitian descent, its loudest voice and its most recognizable face, she was not the movement itself. MUDHA will continue to do its important work, as will other Dominican civil society organizations who have taken on this fight. Their campaign will continue to count on support and encouragement from human rights advocates around the world.

We have spent the past days in tears and shock, speaking in hushed tones about funeral arrangements and memorial services, but the truth is still difficult to swallow: Sonia Pierre has gone. Our eyes burn with tears. But even as we try to grasp a world without her outsize presence and confident voice, our hearts burn with determination to continue her hard work and dedication, to see the day when the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent are restored and recognized by the Dominican government.

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Dear Liliana,

I had the honor to be friends with Solange/Sonia Pierre. I produce the documentary Di Perejil since then, our friendship grew. After the earthquake in Haiti our relationship became stronger. As a documentary, women, mother and Dominican descendent in Puerto Rico am crying Solange departure, celebrate her big heart and fine sense of justice but must of all, I will continue, from Puerto Rico, the compromise to keep her vision, mission and dedication alive with the children in Leogane. Irene Rial Bou

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