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In the past two months, more than 60,000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent have fled the Dominican Republic under the threat of deportation. The exodus is in large part the consequence of a 2013 ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court that effectively stripped some 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, thereby creating the largest stateless population in the Western Hemisphere. Since then, thousands of ethnic Haitians have resettled on the Haitian side of the border, including the family of 28-year-old Molene Charles, which lives in a squalid settlement with 700 other families in Anse-à-Pitres. Their home in the Dominican Republic, the AP reported last week, was burned to the ground by locals.
Such grim reports contrast sharply with the initial assessments of U.S. officials. In July, during a visit to the Dominican border town of Pedernales, just two miles from Anse-à-Pitres, U.S. Ambassador James Brewster, who had posed for photos with the heads of the Dominican army, border patrol, and migration directorate, praised the Dominican security forces and denied that Santo Domingo was violating human rights. Brewster’s evaluation corresponded neatly with that of his U.S. counterpart in Haiti, U.S. Ambassador Pamela Ann White, who likewise claimed in July that there was no evidence of a humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic.
In the face of U.S. inaction, more than 550 former Peace Corps volunteers and three former country directors for the Dominican Republic wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on August 7, urging the United States to cut off its security assistance to the Dominican Republic, worth some $17.5 million since 2013, until Santo Domingo improved its record.
Washington’s mild admonition appeared to have had little effect.
A week later, on August 14, the State Department issued a tepid statement breaking its much-criticized silence on the issue, “recogniz[ing] the prerogative of the Dominican Republic to remove individuals from its territory who are present without authorization,” and urging Santo Domingo to “conduct any deportations in a transparent manner that fully respects the human rights of deportees” and to permit international monitoring of the deportation process. The next day, however, Santo Domingo began officially enforcing its new immigration laws by stepping up deportations, after the period for migrants and their descendants to regularize their status had expired. Washington’s mild admonition appeared to have had little effect.
So far, Santo Domingo has defied calls from the international community, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent, to end the discriminatory treatment of its residents. As such, the time has come for Washington to heed the advice of the former Peace Corps members and pressure Santo Domingo to reform its policies in accordance with international law.
Washington and Santo Domingo enjoy close relations. The $17.5 million in aid that the United States has provided to the Dominican Republic’s security forces over the past two years has included weapons and training for Santo Domingo’s border patrol agency, CESFRONT; in 2015 alone, Washington supported some twenty training courses for the Dominican National Police. Both national and migration police officials have been involved in the deportations. Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency maintains a specially vetted unit of some 175 Dominican agents in the country, the only team of its type in the Caribbean. Major General Rubén Darío Paulino Sem of the Dominican Army, currently head of the country’s General Directorate of Migration, received land-border drug interdiction training from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Washington has strong economic ties with Santo Domingo and is the Dominican Republic’s largest trading partner. Indeed, many of the Haitian workers whose descendants now face expulsion were brought to the Dominican Republic to work in its sugar industry, which has deep connections to the United States, the largest importer of Dominican sugar. In 2013, U.S. exports to the Dominican Republic totaled $7.2 billion.
The harsh treatment of Dominicans of Haitian descent is well-known to the State Department. Its 2014 report on human rights in the country, for instance, noted that Santo Domingo’s “most serious human rights problem was [its] discrimination against Haitian migrants and their descendants, including the Constitutional Tribunal’s September 2013 ruling that descendants of individuals considered to be illegally in the country, most of whom are of Haitian descent, were not entitled to Dominican citizenship.” State Department human rights reports have also documented extrajudicial killings and torture at the hands of Dominican security forces, actions that clearly constitute gross human rights violations; its 2013 report, for instance, noted that Dominican police and migration officials had beaten a 31-year-old Haitian immigrant named Jean Robert Lors to death. And a 2013 U.S. Department of Labor report found that the Dominican government had failed to enforce workplace protections for sugar industry workers, most of whom are of Haitian descent. Nor is this dynamic new: Santo Domingo has a history of mass deportations to Haiti, accompanied often by waves of violence against Haitian-descended residents.
Washington, in other words, is aware of the Dominican Republic’s humanitarian crisis and, by continuing to assist Dominican security forces, is also complicit in it. It was in this context that the American signatories of the August 7 letter urged the United States to enforce the Leahy amendment, which forbids Washington from assisting foreign security forces when credible information exists that they have engaged in gross human rights violations.
Santo Domingo has a history of deportations to Haiti, accompanied often by waves of violence against Haitian-descended residents.
The use of the Leahy law would not be unprecedented, even in the Caribbean. In 2013, the State Department suspended some $500,000 of assistance to St. Lucia’s police force after its members were implicated in 12 extrajudicial killings carried out between 2010 and 2011. American aid will not be restored until St. Lucia demonstrates that it has improved its record and brought the perpetrators to justice, conditions that so far do not appear to be satisfied. To be sure, the Leahy law is an imperfect tool, often deployed inconsistently. But whether reforms follow from the cutoff of aid is not the only measure of value of such policies: regardless of its outcome, the suspension of aid makes human rights abuses more costly and limits U.S. complicity in them.
To cut off aid might seem to corroborate Santo Domingo's persistent claim that its sovereignty is under international attack. Indeed, Santo Domingo has staunchly defended its record, even hiring a prominent U.S. lobbying firm to argue that its actions reflect viable immigration policies. In fact, its policies are in clear violation of international norms: in 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Santo Domingo had violated the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty ratified by the Dominican Republic which forbids the arbitrary removal of citizenship. And as Keane Bhatt, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a signatory of the August 7 letter, told me, invoking Dominican sovereignty to oppose the suspension of U.S. aid would be to invert the reality of the situation. “The United States is implicated in the internal affairs of a country when it funds and trains abusive forces,” Bhatt said, “not when it takes that funding away.
Life inside the Dominican Republic has become increasingly difficult for Haitians and their descendants. But conditions are hardly better for those who have fled across the border, because Haiti is too impoverished to adequately care for them. More than 2,000 people are reportedly residing in makeshift housing in drought-stricken southern Haiti; many have never been to Haiti before and do not speak Haitian Creole. Observers fear the situation will become dire as refugees languish without adequate access to food, water, and medicine.
The maintenance of secure borders and U.S. economic interests should not eclipse the desperate plight of Haitian migrants and their descendants.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Haitians face a worsening human rights catastrophe, but Washington has so far settled on little more than an expressed commitment to observing the crisis. The former Peace Corps volunteers have laid out a new argument in favor of sending a clear message: the discriminatory abuse and denationalization of Dominican citizens, and their subsequent deportation to an impoverished, incapacitated country, is unlawful and should bring consequences.
In making decisions to withdraw aid, the United States must balance its national interests with attention to the rights of the world’s most vulnerable people. In the case of the Dominican Republic, the maintenance of secure borders and economic interests should not eclipse the desperate plight of Haitian migrants and their descendants. The United States has the tools it needs to push for humanitarian improvements in the Dominican Republic, and it should use them.