Human Rights Web

A Primer for New Human Rights Activists


o Letter Writing Basics
o Mailing Your Letters
o Faxing Your Letters
o Telegrams and Telexes

Letter Writing Basics

Most of us have a keen sense of justice. The individual cases described in most human rights documents are so outragous that few are reluctant to object to it. Writing letters, sending telegrams, and sending faxes to those in power can be an effective means of applying pressure to violators of human rights.

The effort of expressing oneself properly, however, and of observing the often complex rules of protocol when addressing government officials in other countries, can be daunting. Whatever the justice of what you have to say, it is unlikely to be heard if you offend the official to whom you're writing. The following guidelines should help you produce a letter that expresses your concerns clearly, forcefully, and yet politely.

An effective structure for an appeal letter is:

Avoid political discussions or criticism of the country's political system. Be polite -- an angry letter will probably offend the official in question and be counterproductive. In some cases it may even endanger the prisoner you want to help.

Your letter does not need to be long. One page letters are most likely to be read.

Mailing your Letters

Type or block print addresses on the outside envelopes, and capitalize the name of the country to which your letter is being sent. If possible, write the address in the native language and proper format for the country.

When mailing letters, get them metered at the post office if possible, and always send via airmail. Mail with colorful stamps may not reach its destination in some countries.

Faxing Your Letters

In various countries, especially those with ongoing civil strife or a war, sending any kind of mail through the postal system risks having it lost, delayed unduly (for weeks or months). In such cases, if you have a fax number for the official in question, sending a fax is quicker, sometimes cheaper, and generally more effective.

I usually fax my letters to all officials, except when I don't have a fax number or the fax fails to go through after a couple nights trying. Faxes tend to look urgent, and if you fax late at night are relatively inexpensive to send. Most of you reading this will have computers and fax-modems. Most fax-modem fax software allows you to schedule a fax to be sent at a later time. I just schedule mine to be sent after midnight, to get the lowest rates.

Telegrams and Telexes

Telegrams and telexes can be very effective means of expressing concern about a prisoner. They are short, to the point, always appear urgent, and are thus more difficult to ignore than letters.

,P>Writing a telegram or telex is a matter of using as few words as possible to get your point across. Longer telegrams or telexes are not any more effective than short, and can get very expensive. Here is how not to write a telegram or telex:

Dear Mr. President:  I am deeply concerned about the recent arrest
of Jorge VASQUEZ GARCIA.  Mr. Vasquez has apparently been arrested
for peacefully expressing his opposition to the current government
and attempting to form an opposition political party.  This violates
Articles 2, 9, 18, 19, and 20 of the Universal Declaration of 
Human Rights, and various articles of the Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights, to which your country is a signatory.  I therefore
call for Mr. Vasquez's immediate release from custody.  Sincerely
yours, Catherine A. Hampton.

Instead, write like this:

Deeply concerned about recent arrest of Jorge VASQUEZ GARCIA for
peaceful opposition to government in violation of international
treaties. Please release immediately. Catherine Hampton

The second message will get your point across at a third of the cost, and is also more likely to be read.

Created on July 14, 1994 / Last edited on January 25, 1997

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