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Chaos in the Caribbean: The Dominican Republic’s Resolution 168/13 and the slipperiness of citizenship

SlipperyToday we have a guest post by Margaret Walton-Roberts, coeditor of The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept. This post is an expanded version of one that originally appeared on her coeditor Rhoda Howard-Hassmann's blog on July 10, 2015.

This month the University of Pennsylvania Press is releasing The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept, an edited collection my colleague Rhoda Howard-Hassmann and I coedited. We enjoyed working on the book, together with a stellar cast of contributors. We feel the final product will have something important to add to the debate on citizenship and human rights. The many empirical examples contained in the book illustrate the multiple and contradictory ways citizenship rights operate for vulnerable groups under current conditions of increasingly securitized sovereignty.

The manuscript was completed some time ago, but in recent months I have been struck by how resonant our arguments are in light of recent news regarding citizenship and rights. One of the more acute examples that I have been reflecting on is the Dominican Republic's (DR) Tribunal Constitution Resolution 168/13 and the subsequent Naturalization Law (169-14). Issued in September 2013, Resolution 168/13 retroactively removed the citizenship status from a Dominican-born woman of Haitian descent, and then the court demanded that all similar cases be noted and that those individuals be defined as foreigners. This process renders approximately 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless. In response to this ruling the DR government passed The Naturalization Law (169-14), which determines that anyone born in the DR to Haitian parents since 1929 is no longer automatically a DR Citizen. International condemnation of these rulings argue that the retroactive application of 168/13 is an example of arbitrary deprivation of the right to nationality, in violation of Article 20 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 24(3), together with Articles 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) [1].

The retroactive stripping of citizenship has created chaos and increased vulnerability for many. After international outrage, the DR created the Plan Nacional de Regularización de Extranjeros (National Regulation Plan for Foreigners) in November 2013, so that those born in the country to undocumented Haitian parents could apply for foreign resident status and after two years apply for naturalization [2]. While over 250,000 have taken up this opportunity [3], many have not, fearing that identifying themselves as foreign residents will merely speed up their deportation to Haiti. Some are also excluded from this process because they do not have any official documentation to prove their status.

Stripping the rights of those born in the DR but of Haitian descent has also reverberated through the large population of Haitian migrants in the country. To address this population’s status, the DR stated that Haitians living in the country who can both prove their identity and prove that they arrived before October 2011 are eligible to apply for residency [5]. This option has also been difficult for many to pursue, since securing the necessary documentation to prove their status and time of arrival is complicated in part because many of the Dominicans who employed Haitians are unwilling to officially admit to this fact.

While some DR officials have tried to calm people’s fears about imminent deportations, The Guardian newspaper reported the country’s director of migration as having told the local press that 2,000 police and military officers and 150 inspectors had received special training for deportations [6]. In the first quarter of 2015, the DR reportedly deported 40,000 people to Haiti under operation Shield. The very name shield indicates that the DR has invoked national security as the justification for this process of expulsion. In our book, we examine how this discourse of securitization has stripped people of their rights and status and how it operates not on the borders of states, but from deep within the social fabric of the nation: “While border securitization suggests a focus on external features of the nation, securitization is in fact deeply implicated in processes of community formation within the nation. The resultant categorization of subjects . . . is spreading, and the consequences this has for universal human rights are critical issues with which liberal notions of citizenship must struggle” (252).

The case of resolution 168/13 also illustrates another assertion our book offers, that we are increasingly witnessing the creation of differentially protected subjects under conditions of increased mobility and displacement. We are all aware of the many tragedies that Haiti has experienced over the last few years, and it is absolutely no surprise that people will seek out refuge and livelihood opportunities outside of Haiti. Those trying to leave Haiti have found it more difficult to find refuge across the Americas and their immediate neighbor on the island of Hispaniola offers an obvious option. Haiti’s relationship with DR is certainly tumultuous, but communities of Dominican and Haitian ancestry have successfully lived together for decades. Despite this coexistence, the increase in segmented rights within the national polity undermines social resilience and cohesion and in its place constructs and inflames intracommunity competition, something that is clearly underway in the DR. Xenophobic hatred is already occurring against those who look Haitian, and in February a young black man was lynched and left hanging in a tree in Santiago [7].

The context of the DR and Haiti reflects a historical entanglement born of slavery, revolution and conflict. The two states share the Island of Hispaniola, currently the most populous island in the Americas and the site of the first European settlement in the Americas. After Columbus landed there the indigenous Taino populations were massacred or died of disease, and by 1503 the colony was importing African slaves. Slaves fought for and achieved independence from their then-French rulers in 1804, but international boycotts from the US and Europe forced Haiti to pay reparations to their former French enslavers, which is part of the long history of debt and poverty that Haiti carries. After its revolutionary birth from French enslavement, Haiti was the first society in the Caribbean to experiment with citizenship, and Mimi Sheller has examined how this citizenship was forged through a strong iconography of black masculinity and militarization, which acted to counter the experience of enslavement of black men perpetuated under slavery [8]. The Dominican War of Independence in 1844 secured the independence of Dominicans (a Spanish term referencing those from Santo Domingo) from Haitian rule, and subsequent years saw numerous conflicts between Haiti and the DR. Part of the justification a section of DR residents offer to support the current deportations of those of Haitian ancestry emerges from a discourse of anxiety linked to the nineteenth century history of Haitian dominance of the island. As such, this case illustrates many of the arguments we make in The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept about how citizenship is a slippery concept that reflects national narratives and discourses, and as such these rights can be subjected to reconstruction through legislative whim: “States are rewriting the code of citizenship, civil rights, and inclusion in ways that create segmented forms of rights and belonging. This segmented hierarchy traces complex intersections of ‘‘race,’’ class, gender, generation, and religion, alongside others axes of difference. In the dragnet that results, populations along the status spectrum are caught in the web, and, in the process, vulnerability is enhanced as well as produced.” (252).

The intriguing history of the Island of Hispaniola certainly frames the current situation, and offers some guidance as to why hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent can be so easily stripped of their citizenship rights. But the responsibility of the state to protect the human rights of those who reside within their boundaries must now be the issue of focus. The DR introduced and passed this legislation. Haiti is already declaring they will face a humanitarian crisis if the deportations continue. This tinderbox has been created by the DR, and the international community and civil society groups within the DR will have to find ways to manage the devastation it is creating.

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Margaret Walton-Roberts is Professor in Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She is coauthor of Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities and coeditor of Territoriality and Migration in the E.U. Neighbourhood: Spilling over the Wall. The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept is available now.









8. Sheller, Mimmi. 1997 “Sword bearing citizens: Militarism and Manhood in nineteenth century Haiti.” Plantation Society in the Americas, 4-2-3.