Letters are often the first step in drawing high-level attention to an issue. They can be used to raise the profile of an issue and put it on the policy agenda, ramping up pressure on the U.S. Government to act. When U.S. officials have been silent or U.S. policy has been ambivalent, letters can deliver a direct message to a foreign government. When the intent of a law or an action is ambiguous, letters can be used to provide clarification, request information, and recommend remediation. Letters can serve as a source of hope and inspiration to individual human rights activists, letting them know they have not been forgotten, as well as a signal to oppressors that the world is watching. Finally, letters can be used as an educational tool for the media, the general public, and members of Congress, and congressional staff.
Letters can be addressed to senior executive branch officials; foreign government officials; congressional or committee leadership; newspaper editors or an ‘open letter’ to the media; or directly to rights advocates and prisoners of conscience.
- A letter may be more impactful if it has multiple signatories or the support of influential members. But this is not necessary.
- If you are seeking other signers, focus on members with authority on the issue, such as the chairs and ranking members (or the entire membership) of the committee of jurisdiction, members of a relevant caucus or commission, members of a state delegation, members who share a key ethnic or religious affiliation or life experience (such as military veterans or Peace Corps volunteers), or key supporters and known friends of the relevant country.
- When sending letters to U.S. Government officials, address them only to individuals who are subject to election or Senate confirmation.
- Avoid of threats, accusations, and presumptions of malicious intent.
- Recommend clear, concrete, and practical ways to resolve the problem.
- Give the recipient adequate time to receive and review the letter before publishing it.
- Acknowledge and commend corrective actions taken prior to receipt of your letter.
- Before sending a letter to a senior U.S. official, talk to your allies within the administration to make sure it will be helpful. Ask about the timeline for major decision points so you can weigh in to have the greatest impact.
- Send copies of letters to senior U.S. Government officials to allies within the administration.
- Don’t stop with one letter. Sending a single letter on an issue will have minimum impact. Amplify it with additional actions: phone calls, meetings, briefings, hearings, legislation, media, and other techniques.
- Use letters to remind the administration of actions that are within their power to take, even in the absence of legislation.
- Letters are more effective in promoting rigorous enforcement of existing laws and policies than in motivating changes in policy.
- If relevant, write to the Defense Department, and not just to the State Department. At DOD the substantive leads sign their own responses to congressional letters and take them quite seriously, while at State, the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs signs most responses.
- When writing to a foreign government, make that government’s ambassador to the United States your first point of contact, and copy the ambassador on any letters to other officials of that government. The ambassador should help to ensure that your letter reaches appropriate in-country officials, and that they understand who the signatories are and why they care.
- Letter Leads to Release of Free Speech Advocate. After 19 members signed a letter to the King of Bahrain on his behalf, Nabeel Rajab – who had called for the resignation of the Prime Minister by Twitter – was released from prison. (Unfortunately, he was later re-arrested for non-violent speech.)
- Letter Leads to Arrest of Pedophile. In December 2011, a convicted Russian pedophile was pardoned and released from prison by the Cambodian Government after serving only four years of a 17-year sentence for sexually abusing 15 young girls. Following an international outcry, a bipartisan group of five U.S. Senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2012 calling on the U.S. Government to press the Cambodian government for the perpetrator’s extradition to Russia. The S. Government strengthened its response, and in June 2012, the pedophile was re-arrested and deported to Russia, where he was again forced to stand trial (paywall).
- Letters Provide Evidence of Forced Labor. Sam Gejdenson wrote a series of letters to the U.S. Customs Service citing evidence provided by a former political prisoner that certain products exported to the United States were being made by Chinese slave labor. This information led customs inspectors in 1991 to seize wrenches and steel pipes originating from certain factories in Shanghai, China, because such imports violated U.S. law.
- Letter Prompts Pushback. In October 2005, a group of 68 members of Congress, led by Reps. Mark Kirk and Jim McDermott, sent a letter urging Indonesian President Yudhoyono to pursue an investigation into the murder of human rights campaigner Munir Thalib. In response, the Indonesian government asked its Washington lobbying firm to tamp down congressional human rights concerns. Although two low-level players were convicted and imprisoned for their roles in the Munir killing, no high-level officials have been held accountable for the crime.
- Rapid Response to an Administration Proposal. During the August 2016 recess, 65 members signed a bipartisan letter, circulated by Rep. Ted Lieu, opposing an arms sale to Saudi Arabia because of its deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian facilities in Yemen. Although the letter was not the only expression of congressional opposition – several resolutions of disapproval of the sale were also introduced – it did help reduce the size of the arms sale package. On December 14, the Obama administration announced that it would block the sale of 16,000 guided munitions kits.
- Giving Hope to a Hunger Striker. A letter from Sen. Mark Kirk and Rep. Frank Wolf to Egyptian blogger and human rights activist Maikel Nabil gave him hope and strength during his imprisonment and hunger strike.