Pro Tips

Institutional memory is an important part of any high-achieving congressional office or committee. Here is advice from current and former staffers about effective human rights work on Capitol Hill.


Most Importantly

  • Know what your aim is and whose behavior you are trying to affect. Only ask officials to take actions that are within their power and authority.
  • Take local views and conditions into account when proposing interventions. U.S. policies and programs should be carefully tailored to each specific situation.
  • Think about where you want your impact felt. Often legislation that draws little notice in the United States will receive sustained attention in the country of concern.
  • Use individual stories of real people to build effective narratives that will inspire supporters and compel those in power to take action.
  • Do No Harm: Be careful about revealing private details of human rights defenders and specific information about human rights cases to a government that might use this information to harm them.


Plan for the Long Term

  • Think big, but start small. Be realistic about what success looks like. You may not be able to free a prisoner of conscience or stop an arms sale to a repressive government, but you can force officials to justify and explain their actions or lack thereof – and put the repressive government on notice.
  • Sometimes even small changes can make a big difference. For example, ask the State Department and U.S. embassies to consider changing the tone of “National Day” statements for repressive governments, withholding letters of congratulation after unfair elections, or refusing social engagements with officials linked to abuse.
  • Even if an act never becomes law, it can change the nature of the debate. Raising a fuss is important not only for the issue at hand, but for putting the administration on notice for the next time.
  • As you plan for the long term, seek not only to build pressure for change, but also to build the knowledge, relationships and institutions that will continue the momentum.
  • The media are key for building power around human rights issues. Seek out and develop relationships with reporters who write about human rights issues or your boss’ agenda.


Timing and Relationships Matter

  • Find allies and experts and let them help you. This can be particularly helpful if they can help you navigate the bureaucracy, which is often critical to ensuring a positive outcome.
  • Consider hosting a fellow in your office from a human-rights relevant executive branch agency (State, DOD, Judiciary, etc.) to provide advice on administration structures and processes, as well as on the substance of the issues.
  • Foreign travel with an executive branch or civil society partner is an excellent opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue that can lead to progress.
  • Find out the timelines for decision-making on an issue within the administration, so you can weigh in with a well-timed phone call, letter, or briefing request.
  • Make sure you understand the parliamentary procedures for committee and floor action. Process can be as important as substance.