In a new report, the Dominican Justice Initiative illustrated how the U.S. Department of State should strongly consider downgrading the Dominican Republic to Tier 3 in its forthcoming 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report. Currently, the Dominican Republic is on the Tier 2 Watch List.

The Dominican Republic’s clear lack of progress to reach minimum Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) standards, which this report outlines, is backed by reporting from the State Department, U.S. Department of Labor, and civil society organizations.

Given the TVPA’s directive that the Secretary of State also consider patterns around forced labor as proof of a country’s failure to make significant efforts to meet TVPA’s standards, Secretary Blinken’s role in furthering accountability for the Dominican government is particularly important.

The Dominican Republic was downgraded to the Tier 2 watch list in 2023 in part due to the forced labor crisis in the country.  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.”

Downgrading the Dominican Republic to Tier 3 would empower President Biden to use his discretion to withhold certain U.S. government “nonhumanitarian, nontrade-related foreign assistance” as defined by TVPA – a powerful source of leverage for driving positive change in the country.

U.S. Government Evidence Supports Downgrade to Tier 3

Beyond troubling evidence in recent reports from the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Labor, the Dominican government’s pattern of behavior on critical human rights issues has been placed in particularly sharp relief by President Abinader’s administration’s domestic response to neighboring Haiti’s ongoing gang violence crises.

Three recent reports underscore in detail the Dominican government’s ongoing pattern of human rights failures:

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State’s 2023 country report on the Dominican Republic’s human rights record marshals a considerable amount of evidence in favor of placing the country in TVPA Tier 3 in 2024. According to the report, “the process for addressing labor violations through criminal courts could take years, leaving workers with limited protection in the meantime.”

Additionally, the State Department found that in 2023, there were multiple failings by the Dominican government to adequately investigate and enforce extant laws, including in several instances where international and civil society observers reported that “government officials and law enforcement in tourist areas ignored or were complicit in the commercial sex industry, resulting in difficulties investigating and prosecuting child sex trafficking or the sexual exploitation of children.”

In the latest edition of its Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor report, the U.S. Department of Labor found that “children in the Dominican Republic are subjected to the worst forms of child labor, including in commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking.” The report further criticized the Dominican government’s failure to eliminate enforcement gaps and stated “the Dominican Republic is assessed as having made only minimal advancement” in the effort to eliminate child labor.

In April 2024, a coalition of civil society organizations led by Amnesty International signed an open letter addressed to the Dominican government, criticizing its ongoing role in failing to address human rights crises. The Dominican National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH-DR) co-signed the letter and has previously 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.”

Civil Society Groups Voice Alarm Over Humanitarian Crises in The Dominican Republic

Amnesty and CNDH-DR’s condemnation of the human rights violations in the Dominican Republic track the systemic abuses extant throughout the Dominican criminal justice system. Earlier this year, CNDH-DR released a report that found over 80% of the inmates in Dominican prisons are preventive prisoners and there had been “no improvements” to the country’s prevention detention crisis.

The findings by CDNH-DR, put a spotlight on a “deterioration in prison conditions” with a 12,000-inmate capacity are holding almost 26,000 currently, with “about 13,000″ living in “overcrowding and inhuman conditions.” CNDH-DR has urged the Dominican government “to adopt clear measures” to address this deepening crisis and to “decongest” prisons.

The desperate situation occurring in Dominican prisons was confirmed in the State Department’s 2023 Country reports. The report also highlighted issues with “prison and detention center conditions” along with “systemic racial or ethnic violence and discrimination,” both of which may contribute to human trafficking abuses and further justify the DR’s downgrade to Tier 3 status.

The Dominican Government Has Not Lived Up to The State Department’s Call for Action

In 2022, during the United States-Dominican Republic High Level Dialogue on Institutional Reform, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights urged the Dominican government to “pass an updated trafficking in persons law, that is in line with international standards, and that will make it easier to prosecute those who would prey on children.”

In her remarks, Under Secretary Zeya emphasized that “the Dominican government must continue to make progress against human trafficking through effective investigation, prosecution, and conviction of traffickers; protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.”

The body of evidence from Under Secretary Zeya’s own State Department as well as the Department of Labor and civil society organizations shows that the Dominican government has not lived up to this call.

By downgrading the Dominican Republic to Tier 3 status, the State Department will help ensure that President Luis Abinader and his government strengthen their commitment to the hard work required to address the litany of human rights abuses facing the most vulnerable Dominicans.