This week in Washington, D.C., at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the government of the Dominican Republic proudly touted the changes it had made to its national civil registry—the agency responsible for recognizing Dominican citizenship and distributing state identity documents. It went so far as to invite the commission to visit the Caribbean nation and witness for itself the government’s successful reform process.
The commission would do well to accept this invitation, but it must be wary of accepting the Dominican government’s claims at face value. The truth is that discrimination still runs rampant within the national civil registry system, a sad fact which has limited thousands of Dominicans’ ability to enjoy and exercise their fundamental human rights.
During the March 28 hearing, the Dominican government detailed the many projects it had undertaken to increase Dominicans’ access to state-issued identity documents, including the computerization of records, late birth registration of more than 10,000 elementary school children, citizen education campaigns, and deployment of mobile civil registry units. To hear the government describe it, these expansive—and expensive—projects have benefited all Dominicans, as the dramatic increase in the number of Dominican residents who now possess birth certificates and national identity cards have made it possible for more people than ever to access education, health care, political participation, employment, justice, and other rights for which state IDs are essential. If these civil registry reform projects missed anyone, they argued, it was due to economic reasons rather than a deliberate plot to exclude specific segments of the Dominican population.
And yet, in the last few years the Dominican government’s deliberate policy of denying Dominicans of Haitian descent access to identity documents has been widely documented, including by the Open Society Justice Initiative. Indeed, while the government was spending upwards of $100 million to reform its civil registry, it was also implementing a series of hostile legislative changes and administrative policies which expressly prevent Dominicans of Haitian descent from accessing to state-issued ID documents.
Today, it is almost impossible for Dominicans of Haitian descent to get copies of their birth certificates, apply for a national ID card, or get their birth of their newborn children registered. The civil registry agency has explained away these refusals by claiming that under a 2004 migration law and a 2010 constitutional modification they no longer qualify for Dominican nationality—even though the government had already recognized many of them as citizens decades prior to these recent legal developments. If Dominicans of Haitian descent are no longer citizens, civil registry officials reason, they do not have a right to state-issued ID documents. Without these ID documents, thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent have been forcefully excluded from Dominican society and forced to live at the margins in the country of their birth and residence.
The reform process so proudly lauded by the Dominican government has not only passed by the majority of Dominicans of Haitian descent; it has made their situation worse.
As it prepares for its first official visit to the Dominican Republic in over 12 years, the Inter-American Commission must not be blinded by the Dominican government’s self-congratulatory assessment of its civil registry reforms. It must turn a critical eye to the entirety of the civil registry system, investigating not only the positive projects highlighted by the government, but also the far more insidious efforts to exclude a whole swath of the population from access to basic rights.