Strengthening Diplomacy

Improving U.S. human rights institutions, processes, skills and knowledge and bolstering their voice.

When To Do This

The State Department, USAID, and other relevant U.S. departments and agencies do not always have the structures, staff, culture, and policy space to make the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms a priority. Empowered allies within the administration can help to reduce opposition to congressional initiatives, ensure that human rights and democracy considerations receive high-level attention, and improve the performance of democracy, rights and governance programs.

How To Do This

Support existing offices and positions with funding and authority; create new offices or positions, as needed, and provide them with funding and authority; expand training and professional development opportunities; improve coordination; reward exceptional performance.

What You Should Know Before Proceeding

Good Practices

  • Before mandating a new office or position, find out about existing structures and previous configurations. Have a conversation with DRL leadership about what is needed and how to make it most helpful. In many instances, a special envoy, advisor or office once existed, but was eliminated, and civil society groups or the Congressional Research Service may be able to tell you why.
  • Provide funding not only for programs being carried out, but for salaries and operating expenses of the offices managing them.
  • Make sure that the official or agency designated to lead a task force or working group has the power and authority to bring other agencies to the table.
  • There are big differences between “consultation”, “coordination”, and “concurrence”. Make sure you use the correct term when mandating inter-agency or whole-of-government efforts.
  • Ask whether adding a new office or position will make a policy difference, or instead marginalize the issue.



Creating offices and positions

  1. Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The requirement for and duties of the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor are set out in Section 1 of the State Department Basic Authorities Act (PL 84-885; 22 U.S.C. 2651a). Originally a “Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs,” the position was upgraded to “Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs” by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY 1978 (PL 95-105). The current bureau was established by administrative action in 1977 and added to permanent law by Section 162 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY 1994-95 (PL 103-236).
  2. Special Envoys. The Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was created by section 101 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (PL 105-292). The Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues was created by Section 107 of the North Korean Human Rights Act 2004 (PL 108-333).
  3. Democracy Liaisons. Section 2111 of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (PL 110-53) requires the Secretary of State to establish Democracy Liaison Officers to serve as democracy experts at U.S. regional and multilateral missions and for U.S. combatant commands.
  4. Opening Consulates. Section 1412 of the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2008 (PL 110-252) made up to $5 million available for the opening of a U.S. consulate in Lhasa, Tibet. This money was never expended, as a consulate was not opened. The intent of the law was to signal support for an independent Tibet.
  5. Creating a Point Person. Section 7034(f) of the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 (PL 111-8) requires the Secretary of State to designate a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to have primary responsibility for diplomatic efforts on international prison conditions.
  6. Responsibility for Domestic Enforcement. The Human Rights Enforcement Act of 2009 (PL 111-122) established a section within the criminal division of the Justice Department (DOJ) with responsibility for the investigating suspected participants in serious human rights offenses.
  7. Atrocity Prevention Board. A 2011 Presidential Study Directive led to establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board, chaired by the National Security Council, to strengthen the U.S. Government’s ability to foresee, prevent, and respond to genocide and mass atrocities. Section 5 of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2016 ( 2551, 114th) would have codified the Board.
  8. Office of Special Investigations. Section 5505 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (PL 108-458) established an Office of Special Investigations within the DOJ to detect, investigate, and take legal action to denaturalize any alien who has committed acts of torture, extrajudicial killings, or particularly severe violations of religious freedom abroad.


Empowering human rights offices

  1. Giving Authority to DRL. Section 3805 of the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007 (PL 110-28) makes the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) responsible for all policy, funding, and programming decisions for the Human Rights and Democracy Fund. By giving DRL power over this fund, Congress ensures that the money will be used in service of human rights and democracy priorities and provides a clear incentive for regional bureaus to work constructively with DRL.
  2. Requiring Service in Global Bureaus. Section 403 of the Departmentof State Authorities Act, FY 2017 (PL 114-323) requires that, for promotion into the Senior Foreign Service, individuals must complete at least one rotation in a non-regional bureau, such as DRL. This requirement will help Foreign Service Officers view experience in DRL as a career-booster. 


Providing operating expenses

  1. Funding for Administrative Support. Section 113 of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (PL 106-386) authorizes appropriations for operating expenses of the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, as well as for the inclusion of additional trafficking information in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
  2. Funding for Leahy Enforcement. The reports and tables accompanying the annual SFOA (most recently Rept. 114-290) specify an amount to be made available from the State Department’s Diplomatic and Consular Programs account for human rights vetting. Providing dedicated funds for Leahy vetting led to more robust enforcement of the law.


Improving coordination

  1. Interagency Task Force. Section 105 of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (PL 106-386) created an Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking.
  2. Senior Policy Operating Group. Section 6(c)(1) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 (PL 108-193) established a Senior Policy Operating Group to coordinate activities of Federal departments and agencies regarding policies on international human trafficking.


Training, professional development and awards

  1. Award for Extraordinary Efforts. Section 109 of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (PL 110-457) establishes a Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. The State Department also issues an annual Human Rights Defender Award, but this award is not prescribed in law.
  2. Mandatory Training. Section 406 of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (PL 110-457) requires training of Foreign Service Officers on matters related to child soldiers. Section 2141 of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (PL 110-53) requires enhanced training of State Department personnel in democracy and human rights. Section 7 of Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998 (PL 105-320) requires specialized training for Foreign Service Officers on identifying and responding to torture.
  3. Section 2112 of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (PL 110-53) creates a Democracy Fellowship Program to enable officers of the State Department to gain an additional perspective on democracy promotion in foreign countries by working on democracy issues in appropriate congressional offices or congressional committees.


Incentivizing Progress

Eligibility Criteria

  1. For Direct Government Aid. An annual SFOA provision on National Budget and Contract Transparency, most recently Section 7031(b) of PL 114-113, requires that governments receiving aid meet minimum standards of budget and contract transparency. The provision also mandates an annual report on fiscal transparency, including determinations of whether countries are making significant progress in meeting minimum standards. Section 7031(a) requires that recipients of government-to-government aid are “taking steps to protect the rights of civil society, including freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.”