Promoting freedom and human rights has long been central to American foreign policy. And Congress has always been critical to American leadership on human rights.

Every member of Congress and every Senator – no matter how junior or which committees they serve on – can take effective action to protect human rights and advance fundamental freedoms around the world.

And human rights work can be a winning issue with voters at home. This toolkit explains ways a member can save lives, prevent and stop atrocities, and engage constituents on human rights, while getting credit for their leadership, and raising their profile in Congress.

This toolkit draws on decades of Capitol Hill experience in crafting human-rights legislation and standing up for oppressed people. There are two key concepts used throughout:

Fundamental Freedoms – Freedoms inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights: freedom of thought, conscience and religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.

Human Rights – The rights of all persons on the planet relative to their government, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

  • life, liberty, and security of person;
  • equal protection before the law, regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, or national or social origin;
  • freedom from slavery, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and arbitrary arrest, detention or exile;
  • freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, as well as to leave any country.

There are two main types of resources in this toolkit.

Tool tiles present a variety of actions that congressional offices can take to defend and advance fundamental rights and freedoms. For each tool, there is a description of what can be done, who can do it, the difficulty level, and when it is most useful, as well as helpful hints and real-life examples – good and bad. The tiles are arranged roughly from entry-level actions to more challenging.

Blueprint tiles provide legislative precedents and show how Congress has pursued particular human rights protections in the past. For each blueprint, there is an explanation of the desired outcome, when and how to pursue those goals, and what to know before getting started. Links to relevant bills and laws are provided. We did not seek to capture every example, but if you have a suggestion for something that worked really well or was particularly creative, let us know.

This toolkit was developed in conjunction with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Dozens of current and former congressional staffers, civil society groups, and executive branch officials were consulted about what has worked and what hasn’t – and what lessons they have learned along the way. It was researched, developed, and written by Diana Ohlbaum, a longtime staffer in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The website was launched in August 2017 and is current as of that time.