Letter writing has been a staple of human rights campaigning for decades. These protests are simple to organise and provide an easy way for people to take action and feel involved. Campaign messages can be targeted at different audiences in the home country as well as internationally. They cost little, and they take advantage of the way government bureaucracies often work. They are flexible and personal. They can boost morale, educate others and reinforce your image as a mass movement.
WHO SHOULD RECEIVE YOUR LETTERS?
The standard protest letter is addressed to a named government official in another country politely raising concerns and asking for specific action. However, letter writing is such a flexible technique that it can be used in many ways.
Groups to Target
Local officials, military commanders and others with direct responsibility for human rights violations
Apply pressure, expose concern, and stimulate them to think about and act on human rights
Newspapers and other media
Encourage increased reporting on a particular country, foreign affairs or human rights generally
Supporters of your organisation
Get the message to target governments
Provide evidence of your concerns that they can use to press for change
Human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in target countries
Offer moral support and encouragement, which can help motivate them to continue their work
Prisoners and their relatives
Boost morale and offer them an opportunity to communicate with the outside world
Organising a Letter Writing Action
A popular way to increase the volume and speed of a letter-writing campaign is through writing groups and networks. Groups of volunteers get together on a weekly or monthly basis to write and sign letters and possibly set up public booths to gain wider support. Using the Internet, you can also set up large networks of letter writers spanning many cities. You can send information on a particular case over an email listserv and have volunteers write original letters, or simply send out pre-written letters to be signed.
ASK: QUESTIONS TO ASK
- How many letters would you like to send and over what time period?
- Are letters likely to be more or less effective if people mention that they are members of your organisation?
- Will letters from particular sectors of the community have more impact?
- How much do letters to different officials need to vary?
- Is it more important to send lots of letters, or fewer letters that are more individual?
Groups need enough information to understand what is required from them and how to carry out your request. This usually means providing the following:
- Background material on the issue, country, the particular case and a summary of your strategy for addressing the issues
- Points of concern, possibly in the form of interchangeable paragraphs
- Your recommendations
- Addressees to write to, including titles and salutation
- Advice on the number of letters that should be sent, which addresses are the most important, how long the letters should be, how many points to raise in each letter, etc.
The background, guidance and points to be raised for a single letter writing action should not be more than one or two pages long. The specific things you need to include are likely to depend on whether it is part of a campaign pack. If your group is provided with basic information on the target country and the strategy for addressing the issues, you will be in a good position to decide which issues to highlight and the best way to make sure your letters have an impact.
Remember that if you include a draft letter, members are likely to simply copy this and you will lose the advantages of generating individual letters.
6 Types of Letters
1. High-impact letters
A letter from a former president, a sports star, a famous singer, a business leader, an academic, a judge or a general may have more influence on the addressee than a letter from your members or a member of the public. A joint letter from all or some of these can also be very effective. When deciding who is likely to have the most influence, take into account the issue that is being tackled, the society in the target country and any special links between the target country and your own.
It can be tempting to approach the same people for high-impact letters, or to ask people who have already made a public stand on human rights issues. But a letter can have impact partly because it comes from someone not usually associated with raising concerns about human rights; this illustrates, in a symbolic way, the extent of concern over a particular case or issue.
2. Open letters
- Can be copied to newspapers for possible inclusion in letters to the editor pages
- Can help build your organisation’s image in your society as a respected organisation and thereby increase its influence
- Can help to attract support from others
- Can be the focus of other publicity, particularly if the signatory is willing and able to speak to the media about the issues
- May be combined with a “public signing” or another public event to which the media can be invited
- Can be copied to the embassy of the country in question and your own ministry of foreign affairs
3. Letters from the community
Letters from different sectors of your community may have a greater potential to influence situations than general letters from individuals. Lawyers, for example, are respected in many societies and therefore their letters may be more influential. If concerns are being directed towards military figures it may be that they are more likely to listen to fellow military professionals.
4. Personal letters
An individually written letter, rather than a standard appeal, is often more likely to get the attention of government officials. It also makes it more difficult for governments to adopt a standard response. The more informed, individualised and targeted the letters are, the better. Personal information to highlight can include the writer's profession or trade, whether he or she has visited the country, or details about the writer's own community to demonstrate the personal nature of the concern.
5. The prepared letter
One of the easiest ways to generate a large number of letters is to prepare them in advance. A simple standard text can be drafted, needing only the addition of a signature, return address, envelope and stamp. This sample can then be cheaply copied and distributed to your members.
The first of these letters to land on a government official's desk will have the most impact; the official will quickly realise that the subsequent letters say the same thing and are part of a campaign. Thereafter, the impact of the letters lies primarily in their quantity—the total number illustrating the level of concern. Distributing letters for signing and sending can also raise public awareness and offer a first step in getting people involved in defending human rights.
Some organisations set up public stalls - with prepared letters and envelopes addressed and stamped - and ask people to sign the letter, add a return address and make a donation to cover the postage. This has the advantage of guaranteeing that the letters will be sent. Other groups distribute the letters by handing them out at public meetings and workplaces, etc. This allows for a wider distribution, but it is unclear how many letters will be posted.
Many organisations that have a large online supporter base have chosen to build letter-sending platforms into their campaign websites. This allows supporters to directly email form letters to decision-makers by simply inputting their email address and country of residence. This type of online advocacy is easy to track, easy to share through social media and can help an organisation increase its email database of supporters. However, it requires a certain level of in-house technological expertise, a secure website and human resources to manage the campaign and follow up with those who sent and received letters.
6. The pre-printed postcard
The pre-printed campaign postcard can be another way of delivering your human rights concerns an making sure your message stands out as it travels through postal systems.
Postcards can be sent to government officials. They can also be sent to human rights organisations as a gesture of solidarity, to encourage them in their work and boost their morale.
On one side, postcards can have anything from a picture to a very direct campaign message. On the other, they can outline your concerns in relevant languages and be pre-addressed so that all they require is a signature and a stamp. This is also an easy way of giving individual members something practical to do in support of a campaign. Sets of postcards can be inserted in newsletters or included in other correspondence to members.
When Letter Writing May Not Be Appropriate
- Some targets are largely immune to international concern. For example, one government leader, on hearing how many letters of concern had arrived from Germany reportedly said, “When was the last time people in Germany voted for me?”
- Mass mailings of letters may be counter-productive if there is a poor postal system in the target country.
- Letters are of very limited use in situations of chaos or crisis where government systems are breaking down.
- In some societies, low literacy levels or high postage costs make letter writing inappropriate.