Meetings and Coffees

Who Can Do This

  • Any staff member
  • Any member of the House or Senate

Difficulty: Moderate


Closed-door meetings can be used to establish and maintain relationships, obtain information, reduce misunderstanding, and conduct frank, off-the-record exchanges. 


Meetings may be held with officials of U.S. Government departments or agencies; foreign ambassadors to the United States or visiting foreign dignitaries; civil society groups; or individual human rights defenders, prisoners of conscience and survivors of abuse. They can occur in Washington, New York, or elsewhere in the United States; during visits to countries of concern, informally at international meetings of the OSCE or other organizations, or in third countries if neutral ground is required; and they may be one-on-one or include other interested parties. Official meetings in the Capitol with visiting foreign dignitaries, sponsored by leadership or committees, are generally referred to as “coffees”.

Good Practices

  • Build long-term relationships of trust between U.S. and foreign officials by sharing views and information, building rapport, and learning about each other’s lives and families.
  • S. Government officials and foreign ambassadors often request meetings with members of Congress, and members should use these opportunities to raise specific human rights cases, policies and practices.
  • Interventions tend to be more effective if the member has already established a relationship with the U.S. official or foreign ambassador in question.
  • Meetings with less senior officials – such as deputy assistant secretaries, regional or country office directors, or deputy chiefs of mission – can often be especially productive because the interlocutor is more familiar with the details and able to be more responsive to requests.
  • Invite others to join, but let your interlocutor know all those who will be participating in the meeting – don’t surprise him or her with an unexpected delegation.
  • Don’t be afraid to meet with representatives of the government you are criticizing. It’s important for you to understand their positions, and for them to understand why you are concerned. But be careful about optics.
  • Specify beforehand whether you will be allowing cameras and press at any time during or after the meeting.
  • Send a Dear Colleague invitation to increase participation of other members in meetings and coffees.
  • When holding meetings in foreign countries, be sure to inform the U.S. Ambassador and be cognizant of any foreign policy, political, or other sensitivities that the meeting may raise.
  • Use meetings to listen and explain, not to preach or berate.
  • Perform due diligence on individuals and groups with whom you are meeting to ensure you know who they are, the positions and actions they have taken, and whether they are on a list of terrorist organizations or Specially Designated Nationals.
  • Forge personal relationships with human rights activists, so in the future they do not need to be mediated or facilitated by embassies or outside groups.
  • Members should offer to take photos with those seeking to advance rights and freedoms, since they may be shy about asking. This is not just a courtesy, but may offer local advocates an extra level of protection. Put the photos on the member’s Facebook page, or the TLHRC’s Flickr feedbut only with the advocates’ permission.
  • Be especially careful about taking photos with foreign government officials who do not respect basic rights and freedoms. Even though it may seem like protocol, these photos can be used to bolster the official’s domestic legitimacy and could hurt the member’s reputation at home.
  • In Washington, in your congressional district, and abroad, schedule member-level meetings with human rights defenders and other directly-affected people – not just with policymakers and experts. These meetings can be some of the most meaningful and impactful, both for members and for the guest.
  • Beware of sending the wrong message by failing to raise human rights issues. If someone expects to be pressed on human rights and fundamental freedoms during a meeting, but isn’t, it will likely be interpreted as a “green light” for repression.

Instructive Examples

  1. Keeping External Observers On-Site. Because of Sen. Leahy’s longstanding relationship with a foreign ambassador – which included regular meetings and dialogue, repeated staff visits to the country, and support for aid programs to that country – the foreign government acceded to Sen. Leahy’s request not to move ahead with plans to shut down an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  2. Bringing the Other Side to the Table. The Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee invited the chairman and another interested member from the majority party to a meeting with USAID and key activists to discuss how to move forward on a high-priority human rights issue over which there were sharp partisan differences. The meeting ensured that these disagreements would be considered and dealt with instead of avoided.
  3. Setting a Precedent. In September 1987, over the strong objections of the State Department and the Chinese Embassy, Rep. Tom Lantos invited the Dalai Lama to meet with the Congressional Human Rights Caucus – the first time the Dalai Lama ever appeared on Capitol Hill. Because the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause were not yet well-known to the American public, the meeting was covered in the “Local News” section of the Washington Post. During the meeting, the Dalai Lama proposed the Five Point Peace Plan for Tibet’s future, for which he later won the Nobel Peace Prize.
  4. Failing to Raise Concerns Can Be Interpreted as License to Kill. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Indonesian President Suharto a day before Indonesia’s fateful invasion of East Timor in 1974, which resulted in over 100,000 deaths and 25 years of military occupation. Kissinger claims that the issue was not discussed, although Indonesia’s plans were well known at the time and Kissinger’s staff had prepared a legal memo declaring such an invasion a violation of international law. Similarly, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie purportedly told Saddam Hussein that “we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts” just days before Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.