How to Write an Amnesty International Letter
There are a few simple rules.
- Always be polite. This rule is essential and invariable. Your aim is to help a prisoner, not to relieve your own feelings. Governments don’t respond to abusive or condemnatory letters (however well deserved).
- Always go on the basis that the government concerned is open to reason and discussion.
- It is important where possible to stress a country’s reputation for moderation and justice, to show respect for its constitution and judicial procedures, and an understanding of current difficulties. This will give more scope to point out ways in which the human rights situation can be improved.
- Follow strictly the instructions given by Amnesty International in the case in question. For instance if the World Wide Appeal asks you to appeal for medical treatment for a prisoner, make sure that you request this, and not a speedy trial or release which might be appropriate in another case.
- Never use political jargon. Don’t give the impression that you are writing because you are ideologically or politically opposed to the government in question. It is far more effective to stress the fact that your concern for human rights is not politically based in any way, but in keeping with basic principles of international law.
- It is preferable to give an indication of who and what you are. You will note that some of our sample letters do this. This indicates that the letter is genuine, and also shows that people from varying walks of life are following events in the country concerned.
- If you have any special interest or link with the country, it is a good idea to mention this in your letter. For instance, you may have visited it, studied its history, or been a member of a local association for friendship with it. (See sample letter I)
- Be brief. A simple, one line letter is adequate (see sample letters A and B) and is certainly better than no letter at all. But sample letters E and F might be considered the standard length to aim at where you have nothing special to add. A good rule is not to write more than one page (i.e. one side). Long letters are less likely to be read. Only in exceptional cases are long letters effective.
Sample letter A
I write to appeal to you, on humanitarian grounds, to release Mr … .
Sample letter B
I write to appeal to you, on humanitarian grounds, to spare the life of Mr … presently under sentence of death.
Sample letter C
I am writing to you about the plight of Mrs … who I understand has been detained for nearly three years now under the Internal 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 subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. I therefore humbly request you look into this case urgently with a view to releasing Mrs … .
Sample letter D
I write this letter to appeal to you, in the spirit of respect for human dignity as I understood all over the world, to ensure that Professor …, a prisoner held in … State Prison, is given adequate diet and medical treatment. At the same time, in view of the seriousness of the case, I would ask you to make inquiries to satisfy yourself personally that the conditions under which he is kept in prison are in keeping with the basic standards expected today by all civilised nations.
Sample letter E
I write to you in the spirit of friendship that has always existed between your country and our country, to inquire about the health of Mr …, who, I am informed, suffered grave injuries in the course of his arrest in February of this year and is still in the hospital in a critical condition. Respect for human rights is an issue which transcends all differences of race, nationality and belief. I appeal to you, as head of state, to ensure that this fundamental principle is respected not only in the case of Mr …, but in the treatment of all political prisoners in your country.
Sample letter F
I am a clerk in Government Service in Sri Lanka, and I also work in a voluntary Buddhist social service organization. I am deeply concerned at the news that one Mr … has been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in your country for publishing an article critical of the government. If this is true, it appears to be a harsh and unjust punishment. I appeal to you on humanitarian grounds, and in furtherance of the principle of freedom of expression enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to review this case sympathetically with a view to releasing Mr … . Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurance of my highest consideration.
Sample letter G
In my capacity as President of the Women’s Institute of … I have the honour … to address you on the subject of the recent arrest of Ms … who is, I understand, in detention under the regulations for the Suppression of Rebellion. In view of the information available to us concerning this case, Ms … is deprived of her freedom in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. May I take the liberty, therefore, of drawing to your attention the specific violations of the Declaration which it would appear are involved in her case.
Her arrest under the regulations for the Suppression of Rebellion, since which time she has been held without charge (at least as far as is publicly known) or without trial, constitute a violation of Articles 9 and 10 of the Declaration. In view of the fact that the only grounds which have been publicly announced for the arrest of Ms … and those arrested with her is her role in the legal and legitimate opposition in the public life of your country, (not only as a parliamentarian, but as a political worker conducting actions guaranteed the full protection of your Constitution), it further appears that the rights proclaimed in Articles 18 and 19 of the Declaration have also been violated.
Motivated solely by respect for human rights, which we believe to be necessary for the full development of human personality and society everywhere, I appeal to you to intervene personally in this case to secure the immediate release of Ms … from detention or to grant her the right to an early, fair and open trial.
Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurance of my highest consideration.
Sample letter H
I enclose herewith a cutting from an English language daily newspaper published in our country, namely the Morning Times of 11 January 1986, relating to the alleged treatment of political offenders in your country. The same news was carried in the newspapers published in our national languages. Although your land is far away, quite a number of people follow such news with interest and concern. However, we do not necessarily believe everything that is published in the papers. Therefore, I would be very grateful if you would be so good as to let me know whether the facts stated in this news item are correct.
Sample letter I
I am an engineer, and I worked on an irrigation project at … where the dam was constructed with the expert assistance of technicians from your country. This was truly a memorable experience. The dedication of your engineers, both to the job in hand and to the achievements of your revolution, really opened our eyes and inspired us by their example. Many misconceptions about your country disseminated by the foreign press were dispelled, and we became good friends too. It was therefore with special concern that I came to hear of the case of Mr … .
I understand that he was arrested in … for publishing a book critical of some aspects of the government, and has been held since then without charge or trial in contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This matter has been the subject of discussion among my colleagues. If the facts are incorrect, please let me know, and I will see that the true version is explained. If, however, they are true, I appeal to you to look into this case with a view to releasing Mr … .
I am confident that your system is sufficiently strong to permit that open debate without which no human society can be really rich.
Sample letter J
I write on the direction of our Executive Committee, in connection with a question raised by one of our members. We would be grateful for any information you are able to give us about the health and general condition of Mr … who we understand is serving a 12-year prison sentence, and who is reported to be suffering from a heart ailment. We would also be grateful if you would confirm that the prison conditions in your country comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
I would like to add that our Association, whose function it is to promote friendship and goodwill between the peoples of our two countries, has every confidence that the human rights enshrined in your noble Constitution are fully observed in your country. The present inquiry is made only to enable us, with your help, to reply fully and authoritatively to the questions raised by one of our members.
An early reply would be greatly appreciated as we are anxious to dispose of this query before our Annual General Meeting which takes place next month.
Sample letter K
I write to welcome your historic decision to grant a general amnesty to all political prisoners on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of your country's independence. I read of this in our newspapers, which gave it great prominence and I know that many others too greeted the news with joy. All humanity will be grateful to you for this act of humanitarianism and tolerance. We hope and pray that your example will inspire many other governments to act in a similar fashion.
Sample letter L
Some time ago I wrote to you about the case of prisoner of conscience Ms … . Since then, I was happy to hear that Ms … had been released and is now happily reunited with her four young children. I do appreciate very much this act of compassion and humanity on your part.