"I have a message for Amnesty International: please keep sending letters. The only thing I can rely on to help convince the cabinet to spend money on our prisons is the pressure from Amnesty International."
Minister of Asian government in aside to Amnesty International delegation
Sending a written message - whether by email, in a letter or by fax - is one of the most effective ways for individuals to communicate their concerns to people responsible for violating human rights and to those in a position to influence their actions.
When you write in response to an Amnesty International appeal, you join tens of thousands of other people in a worldwide campaign. A steady stream of letters and emails does have an effect on governments. We know of many prisoners who have been released from torture or possible death.
A few simple rules for writing letters
- Always be polite. Your aim is to address a situation of human rights abuse, not to relieve your own feelings. Governments do not respond to abusive letters.
- Always write on the basis that the government concerned is open to reason and discussion.
- It is important to show respect for a country's constitution and judicial procedures and an understanding of current difficulties. This will give you more scope to point out how the human rights situation could be improved.
- Take care to follow Amnesty International's instructions on a case. For example, if a Newsletter asks you to appeal for medical treatment for a prisoner, make sure that you only ask for this and not for a speedy trial or release which may be inappropriate.
- Never use political jargon. You should never give the impression that you are ideologically or politically opposed to the government in question. You will be more effective if you stress that your concern for human rights is not politically biased, but in keeping with the principles of international law.
- It is good to give an indication of who and what you are. Some of our sample letters show how this is done. You prove your letter is genuine and illustrate to a government that people from all walks of life are following event in their country.
- If you have a special interest or link with the country, it is good to mention this in your letter. For instance, you may have been there, or studied its history, or been a member of a local friendship association. You should indicate you would like to see a better image at the country abroad.
- Be brief. Sometimes a simple, one-line letter is adequate. Please write no more than one page, as long letters are less likely to be read. Only in exceptional cases are long letters thought to be more effective and we will advise you of this.
- In the case of Urgent Actions or Rapid Response emphasise how the addressee can intervene in the situation at another human being. Let them know they can make a difference.
Some sample messages
I am writing to you about the plight of Mrs....., who I understand has been detained for nearly three years now under the National Security Act without any reason being given. If this information is correct, this would appear to violate Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile". I therefore humbly request you to look into this case urgently with a view to releasing Mrs ...
Some time ago I wrote to you about the case of a prisoner of conscience, Mrs ... Since then, I was happy to hear that she had been released and is happily re-united with her four young children. I do appreciate this act of compassion and humanity on your part.
I am writing to you to express my concern over the recent "disappearance" of Mr ... in your country. I understand that around [date], Mr ...was arrested by police in [town], possibly on suspicion of being a drug trafficker. Since his arrest, there has been no word on Mr ... and nobody appears to know what has happened to him. His family has not been able to visit him and cannot get clarification as to where he is. His "disappearance" is extremely worrying, and there is serious concern for his welfare. If he is suspected of a criminal offence, he should be charged and have access to a lawyer. He is also entitled to a fair trial. I have deep respect for your country and its people, and I appeal to you to ensure that Mr ... is safe.
Messages of appreciation
Not all of your letters need make requests on behalf of victims of abuses. It is important to write to a government when you hear some good news: a death sentence has been commuted, for example, a prisoner released. This may encourage governments to grant similar relief to other victims. We are showing the government that its human rights record is of great concern to the rest of the world.
Please keep us informed
If you receive a reply to one of your letters or emails, please send it (or a copy) to your local Amnesty office. AI's future strategy on a country can be influenced by a government's reaction to appeal. Always refer to the index no. of an appeal when giving us a feedback.