Crisis in Haiti calls attention to litany of abuses by Dominican government

This week, a coalition of domestic and international organizations led by Amnesty International sent a letter to the Dominican government critical of its ongoing human rights crises, particularly against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.

The crisis in Haiti also highlights the Dominican Republic’s systemic pattern of human rights abuses. According to Amnesty International, the Dominican government is carrying out discriminatory expulsions of Haitians, “among whom there are pregnant women, children, girls, applicants for asylum.” Amnesty implored the Dominican President, Luis Abinader, as well as the Attorney General’s Office of the Republic and other related Ministries to “respect international human rights obligations.”

Amnesty International’s letter was co-signed by the Dominican National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR), which has urged the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to intercede in the Dominican Republic’s “constant human rights violations” throughout the justice system, such as “corruption, torture, overcrowding, preventive measures turned into anticipated sentences” and a prison system that is “a cemetery for the living.”

Observers of the Dominican government’s repeated violations of basic due process know that the country’s prisons are grossly overcrowded, thanks in large part to the excessively high rates of preventive detention. Last month, a fire at La Victoria National Penitentiary, the largest prison in the Dominican Republic and the largest correctional facility in the Caribbean, resulted in the tragic loss of 13 lives—a  toll that may still rise.

The Dominican Republic’s flagrant violations of due process are indicative of the government’s callous attitudes towards human rights.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Two Sides of the Same Crisis

Despite sharing the second-largest island in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic and Haiti have historically had a fractious relationship, rife with discrimination on the part of the Dominican Republic government towards those of Afro-Caribbean descent.

The two countries have one thing in common: a criminal justice system where preventive detention is the norm, not the exception. In a lengthy investigative report, The Washington Post detailed how one inmate in Haiti was held for nine years on charges stemming from a fight in 2014—“longer than he could have been sentenced.” The Post’s reporting further found that cases such as Adonis are common in Haiti, where “where lawyers and rights groups say the prison system is a black box, routinely holding suspects in pretrial detention for prolonged periods — often for longer than their potential maximum sentences — without charging or trying them.”

That scenario plays out in the Dominican criminal justice system every day, where 80 percent of those behind bars have not been charged with a crime. In fact, this is almost statistically identical to Haiti, where 83 percent of prisoners serve preventive detention sentences. These practices violate multiple articles of the American Charter on Human Rights and could bring serious legal consequences for the Dominican Republic before international tribunals. No intervention has taken place by Attorney General Miriam German Brito or any official of the Abinader government to put an end to these practices.

Preventive Detention’s Downstream Effects on Human Rights in the Dominican Republic

Nelson Mandela famously stated, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Stepping inside the Dominican Republic’s jails gives a glimpse in the government’s litany of human rights abuses.

The abuses against Haitians and those of Afro-Caribbean descent extends outside the prison walls. A 2023 investigation revealed the widespread use of forced labor-type practices in the Dominican Republic, particularly against Haitian migrants. One advocate working to stop the inhumane treatment and exploitation of these workers equated the conditions to “modern day slavery.”

Underscoring this pattern of abuse, the Dominican Republic was downgraded in the U.S. State Department’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons report. Justifying the downgrade, the U.S. State Department noted the Abinader government “investigated and prosecuted fewer traffickers” and “systematically and persistently failed to equitably screen vulnerable migrant or undocumented populations and refer identified victims to services and did not provide these groups justice in trafficking crimes.”

The Future of Haiti Runs Through the Dominican Republic

The economic prosperity and security of the Caribbean is dependent on a return to stability in Haiti, and its future is linked to the Dominican Republic. These two countries are strategically important – together, Haiti and the Dominican Republic represent over 50 percent of the Caribbean’s total population.

America needs to lead from the front and intervene in this humanitarian crisis, starting with the Dominican Republic. Last year, President Abinader told a crowd of supporters that “Never before has any government done so much to protect the integrity of the Dominican Republic along its border.” According to The Washington Post, Manoucheka Saint-Fleur, a 32 year-old office cleaner, fled Haiti, but was immediately subject to abuse that included “beatings, tasering, and tear gas from Dominican police.”

The discrimination and human rights abuses in the Dominican Republic has deteriorated so significantly that the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo reported that “darker skinned U.S. citizens and U.S. citizens of African descent” have been delayed, detained, or subject to “heightened” questioning by Dominican authorities.  Detainees are reportedly “kept in overcrowded detention centers, without the ability to challenge their detention, and without access to food or restroom facilities” for extended periods of time.

While Secretary of State Antony Blinken attempts to lead Caribbean countries toward stabilizing Haiti, the Biden administration needs to have a tough conversation with Haiti’s next door neighbor. Until then, the Dominican Republic’s campaign of human rights violations will not subside.