Empowering Partners

Building the capacity of civil society organizations and government actors to protect human rights.

When To Do This

The United States can empower allies on the ground through the provision of training and technical support, funding, equipment, and information.

How To Do This

Authorizing and appropriating assistance, removing legal barriers to direct cooperation, and supporting information and exchange programs.

What You Should Know Before Proceeding

  • Political will is a prerequisite for building capacity in foreign government security forces. Training police and military to respect human rights in an atmosphere where violations are encouraged or tolerated at the top is risky and unlikely to be successful.
  • Procurement regulations and vetting policies make it extremely difficult for the U.S. Government to administer small grants to local organizations. In many cases, it may be necessary to work through international non-governmental organizations with a local presence.
  • Organizations that are better at conducting public relations and at filling out U.S. Government paperwork are not necessarily better at carrying out programs on the ground or at building productive relationships with governmental partners and affected communities.
  • Repressive governments often have the capacity to jam or block radio and TV signals and to restrict Internet access, so media programming does not always reach those for whom it is intended.
  • Space for human rights groups and other civil society organizations to operate freely and safely is being narrowed in many countries. Association with the United States Government, or receipt of U.S. funding, can sometimes cause physical or financial risks to these organizations or serve to de-legitimize them in the eyes of the local population.

Good Practices

  • If you authorize a new program, ensure a source of funding for it. Don’t create unfunded mandates.
  • Ask for briefings from USAID, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the National Endowment for Democracy, or other relevant federal agencies to find out what programs are already being carried out before mandating new ones.
  • Check evaluations commissioned by relevant U.S. Government agencies, as well as reports by the GAO and Inspectors General, to find out what has worked and what hasn’t. Ask civil society groups for a view from the field.



Supporting and Strengthening Capacity (See Also: Authorizing Assistance under “Promoting Respect”)

  1. Democracy in Iran. Section 302 of the Iran Freedom Support Act (PL 109-293) authorizes support for foreign and domestic individuals, organizations and entities working to support and promote democracy for Iran.
  2. Gathering Evidence for Investigations. Section 304 of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016 (R. 5732, 114th) would have authorized assistance to support entities that are conducting criminal investigations, building Syrian investigative capacity, supporting prosecutions in national courts, collecting evidence and preserving the chain of evidence for eventual prosecution against those who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria.
  3. Drawdown for War Crimes Tribunals. Since 1994, annual SFOAs have authorized the drawdown of commodities and services from the inventory and resources of any agency of the U.S. Government to support the work of war crimes tribunals in addressing genocide and other violations of international humanitarian law. Most recently, this authority was contained in Section 7047 of PL 114-113.
  4. Support for Reconciliation. Section 7(b) of the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 (PL 111-172) provides authority to promote transitional justice and reconciliation in northern Uganda, including a body to investigate the history of the conflict, inquire into human rights violations committed during the conflict by all sides, promote truth-telling in communities, and encourage the preservation of the memory of events and victims of the conflict through memorials, archives, commemorations, and other forms of preservation.
  5. Police Capacity-Building. The Senate Appropriations Committee report on the FY 2015 SFOA ( Rept. 113-195) recommended up to $3 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement assistance for building the capacity of sexual assault units within the Guatemalan police. Bipartisan letters from House and Senate members to the Secretary of State express strong support for this provision.


Removing Barriers to Cooperation

  1. Democracy Programs Special Authority. Under the annual State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act (most recently Sec. 7032 (b) of PL 114-113), funds for democracy programs may be made available notwithstanding any other provision of law.
  2. No Prior Approval by Foreign Governments. Under the annual State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act (most recently Sec. 7032 (e) of PL 114-113), democracy programs in a country may not be subject to the prior approval of the government of that country.
  3. Exceptions to Restrictions on Police Aid. Under the annual State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Act (most recently Sec. 7049 of PL 114-113), funds may be used to enhance the effectiveness and accountability of civilian police authority through training and technical assistance in human rights, the rule of law, anti-corruption, addressing gender-based violence, and related purposes, despite the prohibition on training foreign police forces (Sec. 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, PL 87-195).


Promoting Information and Exchange

  1. Radio and TV Broadcasting. The Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act (PL 98-111) required Voice of America broadcasts to Cuba, using facilities in Marathon, Florida. Congress funded startup operations for television broadcasting to Cuba in the Commerce-Justice-State appropriation for FY 1989 (PL 100-459), and formally created TV Martí in the Television Broadcasting to Cuba Act (PL 101-246). R. 4501 (114th) would have required the Broadcasting Board of Governors to “broadcast to North Korea in the Korean language information on rights, laws, and freedoms afforded through the North Korean Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and any other applicable treaties or international agreements to which North Korea is bound.” Section 1262 of the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) Act, included in National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2010 (PL 111-84), provides $15 million for expanded Farsi language programming and $15 million in capital improvements for the Broadcasting Board of Governors to expand transmissions.
  2. Distribution of Circumvention Devices. R. 4501 (114th) would specifically authorize the distribution of information-receiving devices and other electronic media inside North Korea. However, this bill does not ensure that distribution of such equipment is legal in the target country. USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was distributing similar equipment inside Cuba, was arrested and imprisoned for five years.
  3. Educational and Cultural Exchanges. Sections 236 and 237 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, FY 1994-95 (PL 103-236) created educational and cultural exchanges with Tibet and scholarships for East Timorese students.
  4. Section 107(c) of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (PL 110-457) mandates timely translation of the Trafficking in Persons report into local languages. Section 2122 of the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2007 (PL 110-53) requires the Secretary of State to “continue to expand” the timely translation of major U.S. human rights reports into local languages.
  5. Informing People of their Rights. Section 1206 of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (PL 113-4) requires certain U.S. embassy and consular waiting rooms to screen an informational video regarding the legal rights and resources for aliens applying for employment- or education-based non-immigrant visas.
  6. Media Fund. Section 1263 of the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) Act, included in National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2010 (PL 111-84), authorizes $20 million for the development of technologies to help the Iranian people gain access to and share information.