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In May 2005 elections, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit's Dominica Labour Party (DLP) won 12 of 21 seats, and at age 32, Skerrit became the country's youngest elected prime minister. The country is struggling to complete a series of IMF-mandated economic adjustments that threaten to increase social tensions.
Dominica has been internally self-governing since 1967 and an independent republic within the Commonwealth since 1978, when it achieved independence from Britain. The centrist Dominica Labour Party (DLP) swept to victory for the first time in 20 years in the January 2000 parliamentary elections, winning 10 of 21 seats and forming a coalition with the right-wing Dominica Freedom Party (DFP). DLP leader Roosevelt "Rosie" Douglas was named prime minister, but died of a heart attack in October 2000. Douglas was replaced by Pierre Charles, who was Douglas's communications and works minister. On January 6, 2004, Charles, 49, collapsed and died of heart failure. He was succeeded by Roosevelt Skerrit, also of the DLP, who had been serving as education and youth affairs minister.
Skerrit's government inherited tremendous financial troubles, compounded by a loss of his party's popular support as a result of the implementation of austerity measures; increased global competition confronted the agriculturally based economy especially hard and the imposition of a stabilization and adjustment program proved highly unpopular. The IMF program obliged the government to cut its workforce of more than 4,000, while remaining employees faced a 5 percent cut in the government's total wage bill this year. In addition, the population as a whole was affected by an increase in the sales tax, from 3.0 percent to 7.5 percent. Despite these difficulties, in April 2004, the DLP won a by-election by a landslide, ratifying Skerrit's popularity. In addition, on April 10, China promised $122 million in return for Dominica's revocation of its recognition of Taiwan.
Prime Minister Skerrit and the DLP handily triumphed in the 2005 elections, winning 12 seats in the 21-seat parliament; the results assured the DLP of a legislative majority even without the support of the DFP. Former Prime Minister Edison James, leader of the opposition United Workers Party (UWP), initially accepted his second successive electoral defeat, but later claimed that five of the DLP seats were obtained through fraud. The UWP has also accused the government of using illicit funds to finance the airfares of hundreds of voters living abroad. While the overall electoral process was peaceful, there were sporadic reports of violence between the competing political groups.
Dominica's economy is primarily agricultural, despite recent efforts to build the infrastructure required to promote tourism and high-technology investment. Because of the island's volcanic geology, rugged terrain, and few beaches, most tourist activity is limited to cruise ship visits. Destruction caused by hurricanes, at times devastating, has further strained the banana industry, which has also been affected by changing market forces, especially increasing competition. Unemployment hovers at 20 percent. A major escape valve is the continuing emigration of residents of Dominica to the United States and the francophone Caribbean. Dominica is often used as a transit point for illegal immigration to Guadeloupe, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Netherlands Antilles, although U.S., French, and Dutch authorities have pressured the government to clamp down on this practice.
Citizens of Dominica can change their government democratically. Dominica is headed by a prime minister and the unicameral House of Assembly, with 21 members elected to five-year terms. Nine senators are appointed-five by the prime minister and four by the opposition leader. The president is elected by the House of Assembly for a five-year term; the prime minister is appointed by the president. Currently, President Nicholas Liverpool serves as chief of state, while Prime Minister Skerrit manages the daily affairs of the government.
The three major political parties are the DLP, which is currently in power; the UWP; and the once-robust Dominica Freedom Party, which no longer has a seat in parliament.
According to the 2005 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, corruption is a moderate problem in Dominica. Dominica was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The press is free, and there is no censorship or government intrusion. Four private newspapers and an equal number of political party journals publish without interference. Although the main radio station is state owned, there is also an independent station. Citizens have unimpeded access to cable television and regional radio broadcasts, as well as to the internet.
Freedom of religion is recognized. While a majority of the population is Roman Catholic, some Protestant churches have been established. In the past, members of the small Rastafarian community charged that their religious rights were violated by a policy of cutting off the dreadlocks of prisoners and that Rastafarian women are singled out for drug searches. Academic freedom is respected.
Advocacy groups are free to operate and include the Association of Disabled People, the Dominican National Council of Women, and a women and children's self-help organization. Workers have the right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively. Though unions are independent of the government and laws prohibit antiunion discrimination by employers, less than 10 percent of the workforce is unionized.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law is enhanced by the court's subordination to the interisland Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. However, the judicial system is understaffed, which has led to a large backlog of cases. The only prison on Dominica is overcrowded and has sanitation problems. In addition, minors are housed with adults. Prison visits by independent human rights monitors are permitted. In September 2005, the government announced plans to build a youth detention center to separate juvenile inmates from the adult prison population, with expanded treatment for drug addiction and mental illness among juvenile offenders.
The Commonwealth of Dominica Police Force (CDPF) became responsible for security after the Dominica Defense Force (DDF) was disbanded in 1981. The DDF had been implicated in an attempted coup staged by supporters of former prime minister Patrick John, who was convicted in 1986 for his role and given a 12-year prison sentence. He was released by executive order in 1990, became active in the trade union movement, and lost as a DLP candidate in the 1995 election.
Occasional instances of excessive use of force by police are among the few human rights complaints heard. In 1997, the commissioner and deputy commissioner of police were forced to retire as a result of recommendations by a commission of inquiry that investigated allegations of mismanagement, corruption, and police brutality. Under new leadership, the police created the Internal Affairs Department late that year to investigate public complaints against the police and to provide officers with counseling. There were continuing allegations of corruption relating to document falsification. Narcotics traffickers use the country as a transshipment point. In August 2005, Dominica moved to restrict immigration from Haiti and the Dominican Republic by imposing visa requirements and requiring a $400 security bond.
There is little open discrimination against women, but domestic violence cases remained routine. The Protection against Domestic Violence Act allows abused persons, usually women, to appear before a judge and request a protective order without seeking legal counsel. There are no laws mandating equal pay for equal work for men and women in private sector jobs. Inheritance laws do not fully recognize women's rights. When a husband dies without a will, the wife cannot inherit their property, though she may continue to inhabit their home.