Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen was eloquent in accusing BNP and Jamaat of hiring firms in the US to lobby against Bangladesh's national interests. He was equally candid in defending his government's appointment of similar lobbyist firms (or PR agencies) in advancing the country's development and welfare issues with Washington. According to him BNP and Jamaat had spent millions of dollars in a bid to persuade the US administrations to stop giving aid and assistance to Bangladesh. Jamaat hired lobbyist to ensure that Washington intervenes in stopping the war crimes trial of its top leaders. In contrast, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government hired PR firms (or lobbyists) to try to concessions in the export of readymade garments to the US, a major destination of Bangladesh textile products. Momen said he has proof of BNP's mischief in this regard.
In the words of the foreign minister hiring lobbyists is legal in the United States. "But here the main issue is the purpose of hiring lobbyists," he said. It is good for the country when his government does it and harmful to Bangladesh if BNP does it. As he has put his arguments it is now up to the people of Bangladesh to believe him or not. BNP, meanwhile, is denying hiring any lobbyist in the US.
The cross-fire of allegations between the government and BNP on the lobbyist issue has originated from the December 10 sanctions the US Treasury Department imposed against Bangladesh's elite crime-busting force, Rapid Action Battalion or Rab and seven of its serving and former commanders for alleged gross violation of human rights. According to Momen Washington has heeded the anti-government and anti-Rab propaganda unleashed by BNP and its allies with the aid of several international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, which according to him, also worked to stop the trial of Jamaat leaders Golam Azam, Matiur Rahman Nizami and others on charge of committing war crimes during the 1971 War of Liberation. He, however, did not say what the PR or lobbyist firms hired by the government had done in countering the misinformation delivered by BNP and Jamaat. Going by his words the government lost the race to its bitter political rivals.
As the debate rages many in Bangladesh wonder why does the government give so much credibility credit to BNP? Is BNP-Jamaat's credibility with Washington greater than that of the government? Going by Momen's arguments it seems so. It beings the next question.Has Bangladesh embassy in Washington been sleeping all the years in the midst of anti-national misinformation BNP and Jamaat has been dishing out to the policy makers and legislators in the US? In addition to spending the taxpayers' money in running an embassy as big as the one in Washington we have appointed lobbyists (PR firms) again at the cost of the hard earned money of the people of Bangladesh. The government owes a clear explanation to the citizens. It would have been appropriate for the foreign minister also to tell the House about the amount of money the government spent (and still spending) on hiring US lobbyists.
As he told the House his ministry is trying hard to persuade Washington to lift the sanctions imposed on Rab and its officials, but it will take time. The issue is being discussed at multiple levels, including at the Dhaka-Washington partnership dialogue, which will have its meeting next month. We can also assume that the foreign ministry is already at work in taking help from the private but legal US lobbyists in boosting its own efforts to get Rab cleared of the sanctions.
Amid the government-BNP debate rages on, the role of the US embassy in Dhaka is being ignored or not being discussed at all. The United States maintains a large embassy housed in an imposing building in Baridhara packed with experienced diplomats and their local staff. They are here to on the spot what the government is doing and how. They also hear not only from the government but also from a variety of sources before making their own assessment. It will be naïve to buy the argument that the White House, the senators and congressmen rely on the lobbyists more than their own diplomats at Dhaka embassy. We have no access to the political reports the US embassy in Dhaka regularly sends to the headquarters with their own assessment and conclusion. But every foreign mission in Dhaka has the freedom to watch and observe the developments relating to politics, economics, social issues and human rights. So, it is important for the government to be more engaged with the missions to convey the right messages at the right time. Mere being critical or suspicious of a particular mission does not really help our cause.
Meanwhile, those who succeeded in getting Rab sanctioned by the US have now renewed their bid to get members of the force barred from the UN peacekeeping job.
In a January 20 letter to Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix made public, 12 human rights groups voiced concern "that individuals who have served with [RAB] are being sent on UN missions, despite consistent and credible evidence of abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances by members of this unit since its creation in 2004″.
A spokesperson for the UN later told reporters that they will look into the allegations. While, a UN sanction against Rab, as demanded by the rights groups, is unlikely the demand itself should be another source of worry. Bangladeshi diplomats posted at the UN have now a new issue at hand: lobbying with the UN in saving the Rab jobs at the peacekeeping operations, which is matter of national prestige and image. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government, despite its commendable success in economic growth, has long been at odds with its human rights record, seen by foreign rights groups as poor and unacceptable.Responding to this allegation through hired lobbyists is not really the answer. The solution lies in making serious efforts to right the wrongs and come out clear.
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