National sovereignty vs human rights?

By Robin Guittard, Amnesty International Campaigner on the Caribbean.

Faced with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision that recognized the suffering of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants, the only response that the Dominican Republic could muster was to start shouting in defence of its national sovereignty.

What this reaction shows is the government’s total indifference to its most basic responsibilities.

At the end of October, the highest court in the Americas found the Dominican state responsible for denying identity documents to thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent and arbitrarily depriving them of their nationality.

This was not a new concern. For years, Dominican human rights organizations, international organizations like Amnesty International and various UN agencies have highlighted how discrimination is fuelling abuses against Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants in the country.

The official reaction to these criticisms was absolutely categorical. In an official statement, a spokesman for the President’s Office refused to accept the Court’s decision on the grounds that it was “out of season, biased and inappropriate” and rejected interpretations of international law that could “affect Dominican sovereignty”. A former President said that the decision was “an affront to national sovereignty, a violation of the democratic system and an insult to the Dominican people.”

Dominicans of Haitian origin claim their rights ©Amnesty International.
Dominicans of Haitian origin claim their rights ©Amnesty International.

An affront to national sovereignty?The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, like other regional human rights systems, was created to ensure that people within its jurisdiction who suffer abuses and who are failed by their national justice systems have an additional avenue to seek justice and reparations.

By rejecting the Court’s ruling as a threat to national sovereignty the Dominican authorities are undermining the very concept of universal rights.

Pitting national sovereignty against human rights is a false contradiction and it is counterproductive.

Human rights are the cornerstone underpinning the rule of law and state sovereignty. They are an essential tool enabling states to ensure that every person can live with dignity, whatever their gender, race, nationality or other status.These are the very same principles that are at the heart of the laws and mechanisms the Dominican Republic itself has adopted independently or freely agreed to adhere to. The country’s own Constitution states that: “The Dominican Republic is a social and democratic state governed by the rule of law and founded on respect for human dignity and fundamental rights.”

What’s more, the Court is not a foreign dictator. On the contrary, it is the ultimate guarantor of human rights in the Americas. Its mandate stems from the American Convention on Human Rights. The Dominican Republic has been a party to the Convention since 1978 and it recognized the competence of the Court in 1999. How, then, can national sovereignty be threatened by the Inter-American Court?

The recent judgement should not be seen as an affront to the state or to its sovereignty, but rather as an extraordinary opportunity to reiterate the country’s commitment to human rights. It should be seen as a way of strengthening the rule of law, social harmony and fundamental freedoms in the country. The government itself, in its official response to the judgement, indicated that its main objective is to “create a country without exclusion or discrimination.”

What the Inter-American Court has done is simply show how the Dominican Republic can fulfil this objective.

To show its “fierce commitment to respect for human rights”, the Dominican government needs to restore the rights of thousands of people who for years have been stateless, living in limbo.

Unfortunately, at a recent hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights headquarters, the Dominican authorities reiterated their refusal to comply with the Court’s decision. It is worrying that a state that claims to be so committed to respect for human rights is turning its back on mechanisms designed to protect those rights.

Amnesty International calls on the Dominican government to reaffirm its commitment to the Inter-American Human Rights System, recognize the decisions of the Inter-American Court and make a commitment to implement its recent ruling in full and without delay.

This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.