Arms Control, Government Relations

Amnesty International USA’s 2024 Lobby Day: Fighting for the SAFEGUARD Act

April 10, 2024 |USA

AIUSA members on Lobby Day in front of Capitol
(Adeel Hassan)

By Rachel Horowitz, AIUSA Grassroots Legislative Advocacy Assistant and
Nate Smith, AIUSA Military, Security and Police Transfers Co-group member  

On February 26, 2024, over 120 grassroots advocates headed to Capitol Hill to advocate for human rights legislation as part of Amnesty International USA’s 2024 Lobby Day. The event drew Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) members from across the country—from youth and student leaders to volunteer legislative coordinators who mobilize and train AIUSA members to lobby elected officials on human rights legislation. They met with their elected officials to ask them to support the Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports Act, or SAFEGUARD Act. Lobby Day occurred one day after AIUSA’s 2024 Annual General Meeting, with many participants attending the conference and staying for the lobbying training and congressional meetings.

The event was AIUSA’s first in-person Lobby Day in Washington, DC, since 2019. With the start of the pandemic in 2020 preventing in-person mobilization, Amnesty adapted its grassroots lobbying efforts, hosting several virtual Lobby Day events between 2019 and 2024.

As a result, for many young activists, this year’s Annual General Meeting and Lobby Day were their first experiences attending large Amnesty events with other grassroots members. Atticus Fasnakis, a student group member from Florida and one of Amnesty’s youngest Legislative Coordinators, emphasized the value of holding the 2024 Lobby Day in Washington, DC:  

“This Lobby Day stood out due to its in-person nature, which allowed me to build deeper connections and a stronger sense of solidarity among AI members. While virtual advocacy has its merits, nothing quite matches the impact of face-to-face conversations.”

Atticus Fasnakis, a student group member from Florida

The 2024 Lobby Day benefited from a strong presence of youth and student groups. For Mellynda Jia and Alex Orejuela, students from Wisconsin lobbying for the first time, Lobby Day was both an opportunity to connect with young people with a passion for human rights and a platform to advocate for urgently needed human rights legislation.

The event and the months of preparation provided members of a range of ages and years of involvement with Amnesty the chance to connect through practicing grassroots advocacy.

Throughout January and February 2024, participants attended virtual training sessions, completed human rights education modules, and got to know the members of their state delegations. On February 25, participants met in Washington, DC, for a final, in-person training on the SAFEGUARD Act. Through these trainings, participants developed advocacy strategies to use in their meetings with House and Senate offices and in the work of their local Amnesty chapters.

On Lobby Day, AIUSA members representing 28 states attended 133 meetings with their elected officials in the House and Senate. Participants met with the offices of 40 Republicans, 91 Democrats, and 2 Independents.

Amnesty members asked their elected officials to co-sponsor the SAFEGUARD Act. If passed, the SAFEGUARD Act would be the most significant human rights and foreign policy legislation signed into law in decades. The bill would center human rights in existing arms sales law, preventing U.S. weapons from ending up in the hands of human rights abusers and pushing for accountability and oversight on sales that threaten human rights.

Some of the bill’s specific measures include prohibiting arms exports to countries where the government has carried out war crimes or genocide and requiring the U.S. government to monitor when U.S. arms are used to commit war crimes or human rights abuses. The bill would also require that the executive branch notify Congress of every arms sale to a country where a military coup has taken place or where security forces have violated human rights.

In meetings with their elected officials, Amnesty members highlighted the devastating impact of U.S. arms sold to human rights abusers, including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Colombia.

The SAFEGUARD Act presents an opportunity to close the gaps in existing arms sales law. If the legislation passes, it will create a permanent, legal requirement to prioritize human rights in arms transfers that cannot be rolled back by future administrations.

The AIUSA Military, Security and Police Transfers Cogroup, or MSP cogroup, was critical in ensuring that our Lobby Day participants were well-prepared to engage with congressional staff on the SAFEGUARD Act. Over the course of several virtual and in-person trainings, co-group members Nate Smith, Sophia Sabeh, and Susan Waltz briefed participants on the legislation, Amnesty’s history on this issue, and the impact of U.S. arms sales to governments that commit human rights abuses. Nate and Sophia also participated in Lobby Day meetings as members of the Michigan and Washington state delegations.

Nate Smith, AIUSA Military, Security and Police Transfers Co-group member

“When I heard that AIUSA had chosen the SAFEGUARD Act for 2024 Lobby Day, I was beyond excited—this is a piece of legislation, introduced for several years now, that promises huge improvements in arms transfers policy to protect human rights. I knew it would be a not-insignificant undertaking to prepare materials and help with training, but I felt ready.

“When the day came, it was the activist spirit (and coffee) that carried us all through a long and productive Lobby Day. Waking up for a 6:30 am bus after a long day of training the day before, I could sense feelings of tension, anticipation, and determination everywhere. Camaraderie, too–when you’re going up against the arms industry, it’s always great to know you’re not alone in the trenches.

“Ultimately, my meetings for the day went very well. The staff we spoke with were reluctant to promise anything without speaking to their bosses, as I suspect most folks found. When pressed, though, they also could not identify any provisions of the bill that would pose a problem. I’ll take it. After our meetings were done for the day, I realized that I had started looking forward to them—any anxiety or hesitation I might have woken up with had evaporated. I hope others felt similarly and continue to engage with their representatives on this and other issues in the future.

“Logistically, everything was great, no complaints. Really well done by the staff and volunteers, at least from my perspective. I came away from the weekend feeling accomplished and energized.”

Some Lobby Day participants provided their reflections on the event. Sarah Holehouse, president of the Duke University chapter of Amnesty International USA, spoke on the importance of lobbying for change on Capitol Hill:   

“Lobby Day really demonstrates the power of legislative advocacy. By showing up at the congressional offices and talking to them about why you care about a certain bill, you bring that bill to the forefront of their mind. In just our six meetings, we had several offices interested in co-sponsoring, so I saw that these meetings really do make a difference.”

One student group member who’s now applying for a member leader role in AIUSA’s Youth Leadership in Activism (YLA) program summed up their experience:

“In November [2023], I received a message about ‘lobby day’ in Slack and decided to apply…A month later, I was accepted, and two months later, I was in DC. I remember the first day of the trip clearly: riding in the Uber, passing the White House and the Washington Monument. It didn’t feel real, and I was beyond grateful for the opportunity.

“Standing on the Capitol steps with my delegation and the Amnesty lobbying group left an unforgettable impression. As I stepped into congressional offices, I couldn’t help but reflect on how, just a year ago, I could never have envisioned the incredible opportunities and experiences that Amnesty has given me.”

Florida Legislative Coordinator Atticus Fasnakis said:

“The most valuable aspect was witnessing the collective power of grassroots activism in action. It was heartening to see diverse voices come together for a common cause. However, I will say, navigating entrenched power and facing resistance from such interests can always be daunting. Overall, Lobby Day was restorative and re-energizing in continuing the ongoing struggle for justice and the importance of grassroots mobilization in challenging imperialist agendas.”

Four days after Lobby Day, the office of Congresswoman Maxine Waters agreed to co-sponsor the SAFEGUARD Act, a direct result of their meeting with AIUSA’s California delegation. The Congresswoman’s office contacted our CA delegation to thank them for coming to the office and bringing the bill to their attention.

Special thanks and congratulations to Nikki Eclarinal, Lennie Rae Cooke, Mohsen Kermani, and Samera Eusufzai for their hard work in this meeting.

Even though the path to passage of the SAFEGUARD Act remains long and could stretch into another Congress, Lobby Day participants reported feeling inspired by the experience of advocating for the legislation alongside their fellow Amnesty members.

Events like Lobby Day underscore Amnesty’s strength as a grassroots membership organization. Our powerful base of volunteers and members, coupled with the dedicated staff that supports them, are what make these kinds of impactful advocacy actions possible.

If you would like to contact your Senators and ask them to sponsor the SAFEGUARD Act, call 1-877-407-9594.

If you would like to lobby with Amnesty International USA, please visit: amnestyusa.org/lobbywithus.