Cal law students gain legal victory for teenager denied education in the Dominican Republic

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs


A major legal victory has been won by students at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Law (Boalt Hall) for a 14-year-old client fighting for the right to attend school in the Dominican Republic.

Born in the Dominican Republic but denied an education because of her Haitian heritage, the teenager is now one step closer to fulfilling her dreams of getting an education and, one day, becoming a school teacher.

The law students, who work at Boalt Hall's International Human Rights Law Clinic, learned this week that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights - the human rights arm of the Washington D.C.-based Organization of American States - had granted their emergency request to direct the Dominican Republic to enroll the teenage girl in school.

The girl's name has been withheld due to her fear of government reprisals.

Students, law school faculty members, and the other lawyers and activists who worked on this case anticipate this will be the first step toward granting such rights to other children.

The order also is significant from a legal standpoint. This is the first time the human rights commission has used its injunction-like powers to order immediate relief to protect the right to education. Such orders typically involve efforts to prevent physical harm.

The law clinic began the project in March 1998 when Laurel Fletcher, the clinic's associate director, led a team of students to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to investigate human rights violations.

Clinic students spoke to numerous parents who could not get their Dominican-born children into schools because they are from Haitian families.

The law clinic, which provides students with training and experience to promote human rights in international forum, filed the request for urgent action jointly with the Center for Justice and International Law, a regional organization specializing in the litigation of human rights cases before the InterAmerican Commission; and the Movement of DominicoHaitian Women, an organization based in the Dominican Republic that fights for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

The teenager was expelled from school after the 3rd grade because she did not have a birth certificate.

Under Dominican law, according to Fletcher, children born in the Dominican Republic are considered nationals. Although the girl was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and a Haitian father, the Dominican government told her it was a policy not to give birth certificates to children of Haitian parents, Fletcher said.

The teenager is one of an estimated 200,000 Dominican-born children of Haitian parents whose rights to education are threatened by the Dominican government's anti-Haitian policies, Fletcher said.

The vast majority of these youngsters live in poverty; many are the children of Haitian migrant workers employed by the state-owned sugar company, notorious for its poor treatment of laborers. Without a birth certificate, none of them can take the national high school entrance exams, let alone attend university.

Instead of going to school, the teenager in this case stayed at home during the day and took care of the younger children - in a two-room house shared by eight family members. It appeared she would never fulfill her life dream of becoming a teacher.

According to second-year law student Katie Fleet, who spent last summer in the Dominican Republic, "I saw how hard life is for her. Getting an education is the only chance for her to have a future which is not dictated by poverty. I'm thrilled to use my legal training to put her dreams within her reach."

Gina Amato, a joint degree candidate in law and public policy, found working on the case rewarding: "It's wonderful to see that my legal education can have a profound impact on the lives of others."

On Friday, August 27, the InterAmerican Commission ordered the Dominican Republic to adopt immediate measures to ensure that the girl will attend school, which begins Monday, September 6. It also gave the government two weeks to inform the human rights commission about the steps it has taken to comply.

"We are pleased the commission acted decisively in this case," said Fletcher. "This decision shows that the commission not only can provide redress for past abuses, but also work to prevent future ones."

Co-counsel Raquel Aldana-Pindell, staff attorney at the Center for Justice and International Law, agreed: "It's very rare for the commission to grant emergency relief in a case like this, where there is not an immediate threat of bodily harm."

Aided by international law, the legal team hopes to use the commission's decision to pressure the government to change its policy and allow all children of Haitian descent to take their rightful places - inside the classroom.

Next month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will hold a hearing on the girl's case, and law students Amato and Fleet will be there. They will urge the commission to rule that the Dominican Republic's policy to deny birth certificates to Dominican-born children of Haitian parents violates international law.



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