The Loss of a Great Human Rights Activist

By Melanie Teff

Sonia Pierre was 13 years old when she was first arrested and threatened with deportation, for organizing a protest for the rights of sugar cane workers. She continued her struggle for the rights of marginalized people in the Dominican Republic (DR) right up until her sad and untimely death yesterday from a heart attack, at age 48.

I knew Sonia for 11 years, having worked with her in the DR, and she remains one of the most remarkable human rights activists I have ever met. She was an incredible communicator: able to convey complex messages about nationality rights in human terms, so that her audience would immediately understand their impact on people’s lives.

Less than two months ago, I had the great pleasure to meet with Sonia again, when she spoke at two major events in Washington, DC, organized by Refugees International. Sonia talked about her personal experience of being threatened with the loss of her Dominican nationality, and she related distressing stories of people in her community suffering similar circumstances.

For example, in her remarks at the US Institute of Peace, she told the story of a family whose daughter had been raped and killed, but were told by the authorities that the crime wouldn’t be prosecuted. The reason? Because the child’s lack of identity documents meant that she “did not exist.”

But Sonia didn’t just convey terrible stories like this; she also knew how to bring home her message of change. On that same occasion at USIP, she turned to the Dominican Ambassador to the US and announced that she knew he was a man who believed in human rights, and that he would press his government to change its policies for the better. Several people came up to me after that event, telling me what an impact Sonia’s presentation had on them, and how it made them see the urgent need to eliminate statelessness worldwide.

Born in a batey (a settlement linked to a sugar cane plantation) in the Dominican Republic, she was determined from an early age to fight the injustices faced by Haitians and people of Haitian descent in her country. She set up the Haitian-Dominican Women’s Movement (MUDHA), and became the public face of the campaign for the rights of people of Haitian descent. Her work was recognized internationally, and she was the recipient of awards from Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

Last year, her work was recognized by the US State Department when she won the International Women of Courage of Award. It was an appropriate award for Sonia, because she was incredibly courageous. She stood up for the rights of the most marginalized, despite the huge personal risks involved. She and her family frequently received death threats from those who objected to her work, and she faced a constant barrage of public criticism that no doubt took its toll on her health.

But even after her serious heart condition was diagnosed, she carried on with the same energy and dedication. Indeed, Sonia always pointed out that she was working to improve her country, and that her work was patriotic work that would benefit all Dominican citizens.

Sonia leaves behind an enormous legacy from her lifetime of advocacy – and not just in the Dominican Republic. Her work resulted in a landmark Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision on nationality rights that has had a real impact on a global scale. She also inspired so many others to work for human rights in the DR and beyond.

I know Sonia would demand of us all that we continue the work to which she dedicated her life: ensuring that every individual’s right to a nationality is respected, and ending discrimination worldwide. And here at RI, that’s exactly what we intend to do.