Who Can Do This

  • A committee staff member
  • A senator
  • A member of the committee of jurisdiction

Difficulty: Easy


Nominations to ambassadorships and other senior administration posts offer a unique opportunity to press for changes in U.S. Government policy, to extract pledges for action, to get new officials on the record, and to make concerns known to key decision-makers.


Senators, and particularly members of the relevant committees, have an opportunity to influence human rights through the process of providing advice and consent to nominations. Through private meetings, questioning during hearings, votes in committee and on the Senate floor, and follow-up contacts, Senators can influence who is chosen for the position, whether the nominee makes human rights a priority, whether the nominee receives a vote and is confirmed, and how the nominee performs their job.

Good Practices

  • Conduct a courtesy meeting with the nominee prior to his or her confirmation hearing, and use it as an opportunity to raise questions that are sensitive or that you may not have time to ask in the hearing.
  • Questions for the record should be clear and straightforward, without leaving “wiggle room” or opportunities to avoid the main point.
  • Don’t ask hypothetical questions, either during the hearing or on paper. They are unlikely to be answered and therefore are a wasted opportunity to be more direct. Formulate questions in the context of real cases and legislation.
  • Ask nominees to pledge to take specific actions in clearly-defined areas.
  • Follow up with nominees after they have been confirmed. Before a subsequent meeting or trip, read through the nominee’s responses to questions and note the ones that required future action. Six to nine months after confirmation, or as appropriate, write letters or make phone calls to appointees to hold them accountable for making good on their pledges. If appropriate, publicize these conversations in state, local, and national press.
  • If your Senator is not a member of the relevant committee, work with committee staff to make your concerns known and get your questions answered. Placing a hold on the Senate floor should not be the first indication that your Senator is uncomfortable with a nomination.

Instructive Examples

  1. Making Human Rights the Major Issue in a Nomination. U.S. law prohibits torture, and the Senate amendment to the FY 2005 National Defense Authorization Act (S. Amdt. 3386 to S. 2400, 108th Congress) prohibiting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for persons in U.S. custody. However, the Bush administration refused to say whether the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib constituted torture and whether the Geneva Conventions applied to terrorist suspects held by the United States. When Alberto Gonzalez was nominated to be Attorney General in November 2004, he was questioned by numerous Senators on his positions regarding the legality of torture. Similarly, the nomination of Michael Mukasey to be Attorney General was nearly derailed by the question of waterboarding. During his confirmation hearings in October 2007, Mukasey refused to say whether he considered waterboarding to be a form of torture. He was confirmed by the unusually close margin of 53-40, in part because of this handling of the torture issue. In January 2008, Mukasey delivered a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee stating that waterboarding was not illegal and could be used against terrorism suspects, although it was not currently among the authorized methods of interrogation.
  2. Setting a Precedent. As a matter of routine, the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee submits a written set of human rights questions to every ambassadorial nominee, which the nominee must answer prior to or during his or her nomination hearing. Six to nine months after confirmation, the Chairman or Ranking Member sends a letter to the ambassador with follow-up questions. (See box)
  3. Rejecting a Nominee. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated as the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Ernest Lefever, who had several years earlier told a House subcommittee that Congress ”should remove from the statute books all clauses that establish a human rights standard or condition that must be met by another sovereign government before our Government transacts normal business with it.” After a series of four hearings, the Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13-4 to reject his nomination, and Lefever withdrew his name from further consideration. He was eventually replaced by Elliott Abrams.
  4. Holding Up Confirmation Inspires a New Champion. In July 1991, Parker Borg, a career Foreign Service Officer who had previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Mali and Iceland, was nominated as Ambassador to Burma. At the behest of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Claiborne Pell, put a hold on Borg’s nomination to protest Burma’s severe human rights violations. In a tit-for-tat, Sen. Mitch McConnell placed holds on Ambassadors to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, hoping to convince Chairman Pell to lift his hold on Borg. McConnell tried to negotiate a deal under which the U.S. would send an ambassador to Burma, but withdraw its military attaches, but Borg refused the deal and was never confirmed. In the years since, McConnell has become a strong champion for human rights in Burma.


    Nominee: (name and position)



    A.     What are the most important actions you have taken in your career to date to promote human rights and democracy? What has been the impact of your actions?


    B.     What are the most pressing human rights issues in (COUNTRY)? What are the most important steps you expect to take – if confirmed – to promote human rights and democracy in (COUNTRY)? What do you hope to accomplish through these actions?


    C.     If confirmed, what are the potential obstacles to addressing the specific human rights issues you have identified in your previous response? What challenges will you face in (COUNTRY) in advancing human rights, civil society and democracy in general?


    D.    Are you committed to meeting with human rights, civil society and other non-governmental organizations in the U.S. and with local human rights NGOs in (COUNTRY)? If confirmed, what steps will you take to pro-actively support the Leahy Law and similar efforts, and ensure that provisions of U.S. security assistance and security cooperation activities reinforce human rights?


    E.     Will you and your embassy team actively engage with (COUNTRY) to address cases of key political prisoners or persons otherwise unjustly targeted by (COUNTRY)?


    F.     Will you engage with (COUNTRY) on matters of human rights, civil rights and governance as part of your bilateral mission?