Official foreign travel can be used to demonstrate interest in or learn more about specific rights issues and cases. Foreign trips can also be used to conduct investigations, issue reports, and lay the basis for introducing legislation.
Congressional delegations, known as CODELs, and staff delegations, known as STAFFDELs, may be arranged by the committees of jurisdiction, by leadership, or by executive agencies. Members and staff may also participate in travel sponsored by foreign governments, foundations and non-governmental organizations, with approval from the Ethics Committees.
- Become engaged and knowledgeable about a specific area of the world, so that your member can become a leader and an expert on issues there.
- Let trusted civil society groups know where and when you plan to travel so they can help provide briefing materials and arrange local meetings and site visits.
- Invite a representative of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) to join your trip, and/or request a briefing by the relevant regional office of DRL to help you develop your trip.
- Make sure that your foreign visit is not limited to official meetings with government representatives. Include meetings with civil society groups, opposition parties, and legislative bodies.
- Regardless of the focus of the trip, specifically request that the trip sponsor or the local U.S. embassy include a democracy or rights component, such as meetings with human rights defenders, visits to prisons, mass graves or memorials, or tours of facilities and programs for treatment of survivors. Make sure the U.S. Ambassador is aware of your member’s specific concerns.
- Get outside of the capital city and talk to regular people on your foreign visits. Limiting your meetings to government representatives in office buildings will give you a skewed impression of the political, social, and economic context.
- Use the opportunity of travel to develop relationships with officers inside the U.S. embassy, with whom you can keep in touch directly.
- Know that your meeting or site visit will provide an important opportunity and incentive for government officials of the country, as well as embassy and USAID staff, to see things and meet with people they wouldn’t otherwise have the inclination or permission to do.
- In addition to any group meetings or site visits relating to human rights, invite individual human rights defenders for a cup of tea in your hotel lobby. In some cases, being seen with you can help provide a level of protection to the local defender, and these personal meetings are a good opportunity to build relationships and gain insights.
- Ask for human rights information to be included in the background briefing materials and the in-country welcome briefing by the U.S. embassy.
- Raise issues of rights and freedoms in your meetings with foreign government officials, no matter how uncomfortable. A failure to raise these issues will be interpreted as a “green light” to abusive practices.
- Recognize that everything you do on a trip carries great symbolic and diplomatic meaning: who you choose to meet with, where you travel, what you say, what photos you take.
- Spend your time listening, not lecturing. It is fine to explain how things are done in the United States when asked, but this is your chance to find out what the locals think and feel.
- Have some humility. Although it is considered improper for official U.S. representatives to criticize the United States in foreign countries, it is not necessary to defend policies that you disagree with or to suggest that the U.S. has all the answers.
- Treat foreign interlocutors with dignity and respect, even if you strongly disagree with their views or practices. If you can’t be civil, don’t meet with them.
- Take video clips of site visits to share on social media, with the permission of your hosts. Seeing through the member’s eyes will help constituents understand the issues better and can build sympathy for the cause.
- After travel, publicly release a trip report explaining what you did, what you learned, and what follow-up is required. If it is official committee travel, the committee can publish the trip report.
- Use the opportunity of travel by the U.S. President or Secretary of State to a country of concern to highlight human rights issues by writing letters to them and by alerting domestic and foreign press.
- Ask the Helsinki Commission or the House Democracy Partnership to help coordinate your visit with Members of Parliament of other concerned countries, or the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to help coordinate with UN Special Rapporteurs (who are appointed to examine and report back on specific human rights themes).
- Trip Report Catches Foreign Government Attention. George Miller and Jim McGovern issued a report on violence against labor leaders and worsening labor rights conditions in Colombia, following an August 2013 fact-finding mission sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America. The report was broadly distributed in the U.S. and in Colombia, including by Colombian media. When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visited Washington in December of the same year, he asked then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to set up a meeting for him with Reps. Miller and McGovern to talk about the report, and he brought along his Labor Minister to respond to the issues raised therein.
- Staff Finds Evidence of Chemical Weapons. In 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers Peter Galbraith and Chris Van Hollen traveled to the Iraq-Turkey border to collect evidence of the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. Their report made headlines and backed contentions by the Reagan administration about Iraq’s use of poison gas.
- Investigation into Extrajudicial Killings. In 1989, six Jesuit priests who were outspoken critics of the Salvadoran Government were brutally murdered. When the Salvadoran Government tried to blame guerilla forces, a special House task force undertook its own on-the-ground investigation. The group found evidence implicating top officials in the Salvadoran military, which helped convince Congress to limit U.S. military assistance to El Salvador and ultimately paved the way for a political settlement to the 12-year civil war.
- Bipartisan Study Team Turns the Tide. In November 1985, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar and Ranking Member Claiborne Pell asked the Center for Democracy to send a bipartisan study team to the Philippines to examine the new electoral code and analyze preparations for elections, which were being organized by longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The team’s comprehensive report, which was presented to the Committee during a televised hearing, became not only a “benchmark” for U.S. decision-making, but also a best-seller in Manila.
- Trip Report Entered into Congressional Record. Moynihan entered into the Congressional Record for May 16, 1994, the report and recommendations of a bipartisan staff delegation to Nepal and Tibet.
- Getting to a Country Without an American Embassy. Libya had no diplomatic mission in Washington from 1979 to 2007, while it was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. However, after Muammar Qaddafi abandoned his weapons of mass destruction program in December 2003, Rep. Tom Lantos wanted to meet with the Libyan leader. In order to obtain a visa, a Lantos staffer had to travel to Rome to meet with the Libyan Ambassador to Italy, who was the back-channel for negotiations.
- Congressman’s Meeting Shames Foreign Government into Action. After Rep. Jim McGovern met with the Mothers of Soacha – a mutual support group of mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers of young men murdered at the hands of the Colombian military – the Attorney General of Colombia sent his staff to meet with the group for the first time. McGovern took photos with the group and posted them on a public website, hosted a congressional briefing with two of the mothers, and sent a follow-up letter urging the President of Colombia to “establish more regular and direct contact and communication” with the group.
- On-site Investigation Informs Legislation. Staff members of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos traveled to the Burma-China border to see how Burmese jade was being relabeled as Chinese jade. This experience assisted them in the drafting of the Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008 (PL 110-286), and it helped them provide guidance to U.S. Customs officials on how to spot Burmese jade.