Using a Letter Writing Campaign to Defend Individuals at Risk

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people in more than 200 countries come together for a global letter writing marathon for human rights. The “Write for Rights” campaign by Amnesty International puts pressure on government leaders and decision-makers to release individuals  who have been wrongfully detained, to support threatened human rights defenders and seek accountability for past human rights violations. The yearly campaign culminates on Human Rights Day on December 10.

Since 1961 Amnesty International has been engaged in letter writing campaigns to free prisoners of conscience. For 21 years, Amnesty has spotlighted cases of individuals facing different human rights abuses around the world through its annual "Write for Rights" campaign. Supporters have united behind the common goal of transforming the lives of those whose human rights have been violated. Often, these campaigns often advocate for the release of activists who have been wrongfully detained by government actors. Letters might be written to a king, president, or chief of police. Amnesty also encourages participants to write letters of solidarity to victims of human rights abuses.

For example, an activist featured in the 2021 campaign is Bernardo Caal Xol. Bernardo is a indigenous Mayan environmental human rights defender in Guatemala. In 2015, he spoke out about the destruction of the sacred Cahabón river by hydroelectric power plants. He was then arrested in 2018 on baseless charges and sentenced to 7 years in a Guatemalan prison. Amnesty International considered Bernardo a “prisoner of conscience” – a person who has been arbitrarily detained because of their conscientiously held beliefs or because of their identity.  

Amnesty advocated on Bernardo’s behalf for several years before his case became featured in the 2021 Write for Rights campaign. In that year, over half a million actions were taken on Bernardo’s behalf through Write for Rights. After 4 years in the Cobán penitentiary center, Bernardo was finally released. The judge’s report cited “good behavior” as the reason for his release.

Despite being reunited with his family, Bernardo remains convicted of a crime he did not commit. Guatemalan authorities continue to criminalize his human rights work. Indigenous people make up 40% of the population in Guatemala. They have historically been seen as a barrier to corporate interests. They have frequently been harassed and killed in order to exploit their land’s natural resources.

You have given me hope for the justice, liberty and equality that must prevail in every people and nation. Bernardo Caal Xol

Including Bernardo’s case, there were 4.6 million actions taken during the Write For Rights campaign in 2021. The website provides a kit that makes participating as easy as possible. Materials are available in English, French, and Spanish. The kit includes instructions, case summaries, and sample letters. Participants can download sample letters as editable templates or Write for Rights stationary for easy letter writing.

On the Write for Rights website there is downloadable guidance for use in classrooms and activist communities. Amnesty also offers a 15-minute self-paced course to learn about the power of words to make a difference in the lives of people who have suffered human rights abuses.

Find out more about the Write for Rights Campaign.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Writing letters of support for and to individuals facing human rights abuse provides powerful messages of solidarity. This simple act of intervention shows government actors their actions are being watched and that people around the world are demanding accountability. Letters of solidarity to prisoners of conscience  bring hope and let targeted activists know they have not been forgotten.


Tactical goal: