In March 2018, the first annual 'Country Reports on Human Rights Practices' produced under the Trump administration were published, covering world events in 2017. These Congressionally mandated reports are relied upon to inform foreign aid, foreign policy and diplomatic engagements. They are also used as a tool for human rights defenders and governments to highlight human rights abuses and to hold regimes to account.
Crucially for our work at Asylum Research Centre (ARC) they are also widely used in refugee decision making procedures throughout the word. They are relied upon by legal representatives in the preparation of cases, by state decision makers and are regularly cited in the Home Office’s country specific asylum policy, which provides guidance to decision-makers on assessing asylum claims. They also feature in guidance issued by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and in reports by the European Asylum Support Office, the body tasked with harmonising refugee decision making across the EU. The European Court of Human Rights has “often attached importance” to the information contained in these reports.
It was immediately clear when the 2017 reports were issued that they had undergone structural amendments compared to the 2016 editions, the last reports prepared under Obama’s administration. The 2017 reports had in general become shorter and certain sections were removed or renamed, significantly altering the content of the reports. Most notably the 2016 subsection on "Reproductive Rights" was renamed "Coercion in Population Control" in the 2017 reports. This was in line with the Trump administration’s “global gag rule” which restricts federal funding for non-governmental organisations that provide abortion related services and the scaling back of U.S. support for international sexual and reproductive health programmes. Amnesty International, Oxfam and Human Rights Watch all pointed to other notable gaps including the reduced reporting on women’s and LGBTI rights and omissions of abuses perpetrated by non-state actors.
Illustrative of the broader context at this time, the mission statement of the State Department had shifted away from shaping peace and democracy around the world (which became its vision) to more narrowly advancing “the interests of the American people”. It was also reported in 2018 that U.S. diplomats had been directed to remove the word “gender” from UN human rights documents. In 2019 the Commission on Unalienable Rights was formed tasked with advising the government on human rights, exacerbating concerns that rights of women and LGBTI persons may be eroded.
Our focus at ARC is to improve the quality of country of origin information, an important element in refugee decision making which helps to evaluate whether a fear of persecution is well-founded. We have regularly used the 'Country Reports on Human Rights Practices' in our work. We observed that as well as the obvious changes to the 2017 reports, there were also more subtle changes to the way human rights issues were documented that we were concerned might be overlooked.
We therefore undertook to compare the State Department’s assessment of the situation in Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan in 2016, the last year of President Obama’s administration, with the subsequent reports produced by President Trump’s administration covering events in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The five countries were selected on the basis of being on average the top five nationalities of asylum applicants in the UK in the years 2014-2018. Earlier this month, we published our findings.
We identified serious omissions of human rights issues and inadequately substantiated reports of improvements in the current administration’s U.S. State Department’s country reports. We found that the majority of omitted issues related to those addressed in section six of the reports on "Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons" which were removed from the 2017 edition and continued not to feature in subsequent reports. This section typically addresses issues in relation to women, children, LGBTI persons, persons living with a disability, and national/racial or ethnic minorities.
These are eight striking examples of how the Trump administration is excluding or underplaying important human rights abuses in the country reports:
1: The 2017 Iraq report no longer mentioned the underreporting of sexual and gender-based violence due to social stigma, societal retribution, cultural norms, distrust in the legal system and lack of punishment of perpetrators despite other sources continuing to document these issues that year.
2: The 2017 Pakistan report removed mention of challenges in changing the cultural assumptions of male police and in training female police, women’s lack of awareness of legal protections and their inability to access legal representation and the situation of divorced women, all which continued to be reported on by other sources.
3: The 2019 Eritrea report no longer mentioned the widespread sexual violence against women in military training camps that amounted to torture and the forced domestic service of women and girls in training camps that amounted to sexual slavery.
4: The Iran reports neglected to document the use of prolonged solitary confinement and sexual humiliation as reported methods of torture and the Iraq reports no longer mentioned the occurrence of torture in prisons operated in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
5: The Pakistan reports failed to mention the end of the moratorium on capital punishment, concerns with observance of due process and the execution of individuals who were under the age of 18 when they allegedly committed the crime.
6: The way human rights issues were presented in the 2019 Sudan report suggested that abuses such as: arbitrary killings by the security forces; disappearances; the detention of peaceful protesters; the failure to properly investigate alleged mistreatment; and traditional legal practices discriminating against women only occurred in the Bashir-era, despite other sources documenting their continued occurrence since the ousting of the former President in April 2019.
7: Violence experienced by LGBTI persons, organisations and activists, as well as societal discrimination and abuse affecting LGBTI persons was omitted from the Iraq reports, and the latter issue from the Iran reports.
8: We also observed many subtle changes in language that could be read to imply an improvement in the human rights situation. This included the introduction of distancing language, source attributions, and softening the language used in previously statements. For example, whilst detention conditions were described as “harsh” in Eritrea in the 2016 report, in the subsequent years they were documented as “reportedly remaining harsh”. Similarly the 2017 Sudan report introduced that “Security forces reportedly continued to torture, beat, and harass suspected political opponents, rebel supporters, and others”. In the 2016 Iran report prison conditions were described as being “often harsh and life threatening”, whilst in 2017 and 2018 they were amended to “potentially life threatening”.
We are concerned that such omissions have the effect of denying the existence of rights or abuses and may result in certain types of asylum claims being dismissed if the U.S. Department of State reports are relied upon in isolation.