CLINIC Finds Shift in Tone of Department of State Human Rights Reports for Northern Triangle Countries

Last Updated

March 19, 2021

CLINIC released three new resources comparing Department of State, or DOS, Human Rights Reports for the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — under the last year of the Obama administration and the last year of the Trump administration, highlighting substantial changes. Each year, DOS issues a Human Rights Report on every country that is a United Nations member state or receives assistance. According to DOS, through these reports “The United States provides a record of the state of human rights in the world to raise awareness of the progress made, the ground lost, and the work that remains.” In addition to the role these reports play in international human rights work, DOS Human Rights Reports are critical pieces of evidence for proving country conditions in applications for asylum, withholding of removal, protection under the Convention Against Torture, and in proving hardship for cancellation of removal and waivers. DOS generally issues these reports for the prior year each spring. Thus, we anticipate the next report will be issued in the coming weeks covering 2020 human rights issues.

While the DOS Human Rights Reports are supposed to provide objective information about human rights issues, under the Trump administration, they became increasingly politicized as shown by the tone and lack of detail. CLINIC’s Defending Vulnerable Populations, or DVP, program conducted a line-by-line analysis of the 2016 DOS Human Rights Report against the 2019 DOS Human Rights Report for each Northern Triangle country. DVP focused on these countries because of the influx of asylum seekers from this region, as well as the efforts by the prior administration to prevent asylum seekers from this region from entering the United States and seeking protection here.

The analysis DVP conducted found shifts in the quality of the reports for the Northern Triangle countries. The report for each of the three countries was shorter in 2019 than in 2016, with the report for Honduras being cut from 43 pages to 26 pages. All three reports eliminated whole sections, including one on Reproductive Rights for Women and another on the Role of the Police and Security Apparatus. Overall, the 2019 reports relied almost exclusively on information provided by government entities within the three countries whereas the 2016 reports included more information from non-governmental organizations and media. The 2019 reports were also more likely to highlight efforts the government had made to combat corruption and criminal activity, and less likely to include statistics about ongoing human rights abuses.

Other nonprofits and academics had already critiqued the Human Rights Reports under the Trump administration. Human Rights Watch critiqued the reports for significantly reducing the reporting of harm to women abroad. Asylum Research Centre has also critiqued changes in the reports over the past three years and conducted detailed comparisons of country reports largely for select countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Likewise, a Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, whistleblower reported in 2020 that the former Senior Official serving as Deputy DHS Secretary, Ken Cuccinelli, had sought to interfere with the Northern Triangle reports because they would undermine the former president’s “policy objectives with respect to asylum.”

CLINIC encourages practitioners to include these resources critiquing the reports when submitting country conditions in the cases of clients who hail from Northern Triangle countries. In November 2020, CLINIC submitted an amicus brief before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals explaining why the immigration judge committed a legal error by relying almost exclusively on the Honduras DOS report. Immigration judges and asylum officers often consider these reports to be inherently reliable and if asylum seekers have been harmed by the government or if their government has not provided protection, it is critical that adjudicators understand the limitations of these reports and how they have become politicized over time. Equipped with this CLINIC resource, adjudicators will hopefully rely less on the Trump-era DOS Human Rights Reports