Why is Washington Looking the Other Way?

This week, people around the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While many governments vowed to recommit to the global cause of protecting human rights, there is no cause for celebration in the Dominican Republic. Instead, the DR faces endemic issues of forced labor, child labor, and human trafficking, as well as a preventive detention crisis that has gone unresolved for over 25 years.

This did not stop the Dominican Permanent Mission to the UN from commemorating Human Rights Day and touting their election to the 2024 UN Human Rights Council. The glaring violations of human rights that occur every day in the Dominican Republic makes this posture tone deaf at best and insulting at worst.

Instead of hollow words and meaningless commitments, Dominican leaders should do something about the systemic human rights violations occurring within their own country. From reports of prison overcrowding and abhorrent conditions, to the Public Ministry’s enthusiastic support for preventive detention orders to lock up people without charge, the rule of law is absent in the Dominican Republic.

If the Dominican Permanent Mission to the UN wants to promote “democratic values and respect for the human rights enshrined in the Constitution” then they should act upon the gross human rights violations exposed recently by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD). Prosecutors Yeni Berenice Reynoso and Wilson Camacho are documented as violating Articles 3, 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the same document adopted 75 years ago this week.

UNWGAD detailed in its legal opinion how Berenice and Camacho practiced “arbitrary deprivation of liberty” when it was “impossible to invoke any legal basis”. Public data in the Dominican Republic shows this is a widespread practice used throughout the justice system – over 7 of 10 prisoners languish in prisons under preventive detention orders, spending months or years without charge. In their decision, the UNWGAD condemned Berenice and Camacho, chief defenders of the DR’s enthusiasm for preventive detention, and reiterated that “preventive detention must be the exception and not the norm” in line with international protections of human rights. 

In response to the UNWGAD legal opinion, Berenice and Foreign Minister Robert Álvarez issued a politically charged press release that attacked the entire UN system, dismissing any claims of serious human rights violations as “blackmail.” Yet one week later, the same government claims to honor the commitments espoused by the very Human Rights Council it attacks.

A Chorus of Civil Society Members Demand Change

While the government issues tone deaf and hollow commitments to human rights, Dominican leaders and human rights groups have rightfully called for reforms to the justice system that must include ending preventive detention.

Nelson Gutiérrez, Executive Director of the National Human Rights Council, urged politicians to “preserve the fundamental rights of people”, calling for dignity, security, and justice in Dominican society, recognizing the overcrowding prison crisis as an area in need.

Virgilio Almanzar, president of the Dominican Human Rights Committee, joined these calls and urged protections in health, arbitrary evictions, and failures in the prison systems.

These statements join those decrying the humanitarian crises in the Dominican Republic, including from Luis Henry Molina, President of the Supreme Court of Justice. Molina has described the humanitarian situation in DR’s prisons as “alarming” and “constant concern for the Judiciary, as it should be for the entire state and society in general.”

This chorus of voices play into a recent history of international calls for investigating the state of prisons and preventive detention, and the need for accountability for Berenice and her collaborators. Even before the UNWGAD report, the U.S. State Department published a 2023 Investment Climate Statement on the Dominican Republic that warned of local judicial biases and police intimidation. Before that, the State Department published its harsh 2022 Country Report on Human Rights, which exposed “unlawful or arbitrary killings by government security forces,” “arbitrary detention; arbitrary interference with privacy” and “serious government corruption.”

The U.S. Needs to Hold the DR Accountable

UNWGAD urged the Dominican government to “carry out a thorough and independent investigation” into the Public Ministry’s repeated violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead of holding Yeni Bernice and Wilson Camacho responsible, however, it has conceded to their characterization of the UN report as “serious interference that threatens the independence of the judiciary of the Dominican Republic.”

The DR cannot claim to recommit itself to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while ignoring the humanitarian crises that continue to go unaddressed and attacking those – including the UN – who dare to hold them accountable.

The question is: why is the Biden Administration continuing to look the other way? When will the U.S. start holding the Dominican Republic accountable for its systemic human rights abuses and flagrant violations of international law?