“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Inter-American Court condemns unprecedented situation of statelessness in the Dominican Republic

27 October 2014 | Francisco Quintana, Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)

On October 22nd, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I-A Court) published its judgment in the Case of Expelled Dominican and Haitian people vs Dominican Republic. The case involved 6 families who were expelled from that country between 1999 and 2000. Out of the 26 victims, only five individuals were Haitian nationals. The families were represented by CEJIL and three other organizations. The ruling touched upon the problem of discrimination based on skin color; immigration detention; and the “systematic practice of collective expulsions”. At the heart of the ruling is the issue of prevention and reduction of statelessness. Since 13 of the victims were children, the ruling developed some of these rights from the “best interest of the child” perspective.


For almost 100 years (for a fuller analysis see here) the Dominican Republic (DR) has allowed, either by state-control or private contracts, the arrival of Haitian workers, who were subjected to poverty and marginalization derived from their irregular status. International and regional human rights bodies, including UNHCR, UNICEF, CEDAW, CRC, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have expressed their deep concern about the discrimination and mass violation of to the right to nationality that Haitian migrants and their descendants have been suffering.

From the 1950s to 1990s, a significant number of children of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic were formally recognized as citizens by registry officials. During that period, there was a reasonable application of identification required for the parents to register their children’s births. In the last two decades of the 20th century, some civil registry officials began requiring official proof of identity, such as passports or residence cards. The IACHR detected this problem early in 1999: “children do not have documents because their parents have none.”

Since 1929, the supreme law of the land had consistently established that people “in transit” were one of the two exceptions to the ius soli regime in the DR, with the other being the children of diplomats. Domestic civil law established 10 days as the maximum amount of time one can be “in transit.” It was not until the 1980s that this concept was applied more rigidly.

Legislative and Constitutional Changes

In 2004, the DR reformed its immigration law to incorporate the requirement of legal residence of foreign parents as the basis for their children’s acquisition of Dominican nationality. This criterion was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, which established a broad interpretation of the “in transit” exception. In the period of 2007-2009, Dominican authorities adopted a series of administrative and judicial actions that made it virtually impossible to obtain nationality at birth for those affected. During that time, a consistent process of arbitrary deprivation of nationality began, even for people who had enjoyed that right for 10, 20, 30 or more years.

In 2010, the new Dominican Constitution solidified the interpretation of the law used in the last decade by incorporating a new exception to the ius soli regime: the children of undocumented residents.

Judicial Denationalization on a Massive Scale

On September 23rd, 2013, people of foreign parents born on Dominican soil dating back to 1929 did not know if their nationality was going to be respected. Their own Constitutional Tribunal had deprived them of that right (TC ruling 168/13) by upholding the previous Supreme Court decision. According to an official survey by the Dominican National Bureau for Statistics, an estimated 200,000 persons were affected by the decision. The numbers could be greater, as these figures only incorporate the first generation of the affected group. To date, the Dominican authorities have only recognized less than 25,000 people, of which only 60% are of Haitian descent.

The implementing law of the TC ruling (Law 169/14) does not conceptualize people born in the DR to foreign parents before 2007 as Dominicans. Although the language could seem neutral on its face, it has a clearly disproportionate impact on Dominicans of Haitian descent. Law 16/14 divided the affected population in two groups. The first group, who according to the preamble of the law “believed” they were nationals because they received official documents, would obtain nationality because the State recognized its own administrative mistake, not because they were born on its soil. The second group, who lacked any kind of document, was directly classified as foreigners in their own country and obligated to follow a naturalization process.

Inter-American Justice returns to the Dominican Republic

In December 2013, the IACHR visited the island again only to realize that its previous findings had multiplied by hundreds of thousands. In the landmark decision of the Case of the Girls Yean and Bosico (2005), the Inter-American Court established for the first time that the right to nationality could not be limited based on discriminatory purposes, and that the migration status of the parents could not be inherited by their children for the purposes of denying nationality. The Court also stressed the importance of the prevention and reduction of statelessness when the place of birth is the only requisite that should be considered for those people that could not acquire a nationality different from that of the country where they were born.

Nine years later, in the Case of Expelled Dominicans and Haitians (2014) ruling, the Inter-American Court restated its interpretation of Dominican domestic law when it affirmed that it did not find any reason to change the Yean and Bosico standard. On the contrary, the Court took this opportunity to expand its reasoning, when it declared that:

  1. The TC ruling 168/13 had retroactively deprived all children born to undocumented foreign parents since 1929 of their nationality. (para. 313)

  2. The criteria used by the TC is discriminatory and contrary to the principle of equality before the law, since it ignores the characteristics of the person born in the DR and focuses on the lack of documentation of their parents, without justifying this distinction.(para. 318)

  3. The implementing Law 169/14 creates additional obstacles to the full enjoyment of the right to nationality, because it requires affected persons to register as foreigners in their country of birth. This naturalization process is thus per se contrary to the right to nationality in a country with a jus soli regime.

  4. An expedited naturalization procedure for a person that is already entitled to a nationality, irrespective of the time it could last, is contrary to the full enjoyment of that right. (para. 324).

  5. The obligation to prevent statelessness requires States to have full assurance that immediately after birth a child would have an effective nationality; absent that situation, the Inter-American Court declared an ex lege (automatic) obligation to grant the nationality of the State where the child was born. (paras. 259 to 261)

  6. The Court ordered the Dominican government to take all steps – including at the constitutional, legislative or judicial level – in order to leave the TC ruling 168, and part of Law 169/14, without legal effect. (para. 469)

Déjà vu reaction of the Dominican government

In 2005, a month after the Yean and Bosico judgment was issued, Dominican authorities called the decision “unacceptable” and declared that there was an intent to “discredit” the country before the international community. One week later the Dominican Senate acted in the same direction by rejecting the ruling of the Inter-American Court. The 2005 Supreme Court decision previously mentioned also confronted directly this decision.

In 2014, the new Inter-American Court ruling has already sparked the same xenophobic and anti-Haitian sentiments of the past. Despite the fact that there had been unanimous condemnation of the massive judicial deprivation of nationality carried out by the TC 168/13 ruling, the Dominican government continues to deny that discrimination or statelessness even exists in the country. Only 48 hours after the ruling was made public, the Dominican Republic Executive branch issued a statement rejecting the ruling in very strong language and bringing up the ancient argument that its own notions of State sovereignty exempt it from compliance with its binding, freely accepted international human rights obligations.


The Inter-American Court has set a clear example of how justice should be done when States arbitrarily limit, deny or deprive persons of their right to nationality. In a public statement CEJIL has emphasized that the decisions of the Court should never be considered an attack to the sovereignty of any State, but rather an affirmation of a way forward to respect the human rights of all. The Dominican government has to understand that under international law and the American Convention on Human Rights, compliance with this judgment is a binding obligation that cannot be ignored.

The impact that this new ruling could have in other regions of the world where similar judicial restrictions, ambiguous or discriminatory interpretations of the law are implemented is unquestionable. We expect that the international community, academia, and civil society around the world will take the time to read the judgment and support the struggle for justice and dignity of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who, just as in the Dominican Republic, are being deprived of the full enjoyment of their right to nationality.


Get weekly updates

Latest blog

Latest resources