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War crimes investigation: Bell Pottinger vs LTTE Inc.

[Sunday Times.lk, Sunday, 13 March 2011 09:28 No Comment]

The UN Human Rights Council sessions continue in Geneva this month, while the report of the UN Secretary General’s expert panel on Sri Lanka (‘war crimes’ panel) is expected to come out any time soon. As these weighty deliberations take place the image of post war Sri Lanka projected in the western world is not one of a country that has overcome the scourge of terrorism, ended a three decades long conflict and now holds out the distinct prospect of a better future for its people. It is not a picture of a battered country that needs the international community’s support in picking up the pieces and moving forward. The picture projected is that of a state that has committed genocide, incarcerates Tamils in concentration camps and must be punished.

The manner in which perceptions have been manipulated internationally to create this false and morbid picture has much to do with the concerted campaign by pro-LTTE diaspora groups agitating for an international war crimes investigation on Sri Lanka. Although the argument is couched in deceptive language that speaks of justice for “both sides,” these groups well know that it can only hurt the government and security forces, since the military wing of the LTTE is a dead letter. Apart from deceitful propaganda one of the most potent tools used by these groups both in the US and UK is that of “lobbying.” This activity is not necessarily confined to the formal appointment of a high profile PR firm.

While lobbying is a multi-billion dollar industry in these countries, its ramifications are not fully understood in Sri Lanka since there is no comparable industry here on a similar scale. In both the US and Britain the activities of lobbyists have become a cause of concern to those who worry that government policy is unduly influenced by corporate big money. British members of parliament are reportedly contacted by lobbyists 100 times a week. There are 17,000 federal lobbyists said to be based in Washington DC.

“The difference between a politician and corporate lobbyist is becoming less and less clear these days,” said the New Internationalist (Jan/Feb 2011) in an analysis of corporate lobbying. “Politicians can move with ease between positions in government or opposition and high-level lobbying positions in corporations – and back again, through the so called ‘revolving door.’ Sometimes politicians will try to operate on both sides of the revolving door at once.”

The report goes on to describe how the grubby world of lobbying in Britain was blown open in March last year in a sting operation where five former Labour ministers were filmed discussing the ‘terms’ of their services by an undercover reporter from Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’ programme, posing as a representative of a lobbying firm. Former Labour Transport Secretary Stephen Byers had described himself as “a bit like a cab for hire,” and claimed to have access to a lot of confidential information “because of his links to No. 10.” His fee was usually between $4,700 and $7,900 a day. Former Health minister Patricia Hewitt reportedly said that for a fee of 3000 pounds ($4,700) a day she could “help a client who needs a particular regulation removed.” She later denied making the claim. Former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had said he was “looking forward to … something that, frankly, makes money.” He too quoted 3000 pounds a day as his fee for sitting on an advisory board.

All three former MPs were stripped of their parliamentary passes and reprimanded for “breaching rules preventing ex-politicians from cashing in on their privileged access to parliament to make money as lobbyists,” the UK Guardian reported last December.

“Lobbying is not illegal, nor is it necessarily unethical,” the UK Observer stated. “Dozens of charities and pressure groups regularly make representations to ministers and civil servants. … The right to be consulted when legislation is drafted is a courtesy extended to the public as well as to corporations.”
“…Tony Blair granted media mogul Rupert Murdoch regular audiences, but the powerful will always beat a path to politicians’ doors. A crime is committed only when they are flung open in exchange for money. That is where lobbying ends and corruption begins.”

The New Internationalist observes that “Strange as it may seem, the British system allows current members of parliament to be paid consultants to business interests and they are free to act as advocates for their employers, often doubling or tripling their income. Behaviour that would be classed as corruption in Africa or Asia or Latin America somehow passes as legal lobbying when it happens in the West.”

“The greed of British politicians must seem like chicken feed from the other side of the Atlantic,” it adds, “In spite of the recession, congressional members’ personal wealth collectively increased by more than 16 per cent between 2008 and 2009.”

One of the first directives made by Barack Obama after taking office as president of the US was to prohibit public officials from joining lobbying firms for a specified period of time immediately after leaving office, and barring them from accepting gifts from lobbyists. It is hard to say how effective these measure have been in stemming corruption.

LTTE sympathisers and front organisations in the west have expertly used lobbying as a means of manipulating public opinion and policy decisions in states where Tamils of the diaspora are domiciled. This did not start up overnight with the defeat of the TTE, but has been going on for decades. If it is true that the best PR is that which goes unnoticed, the LTTE groups have surpassed themselves in their campaign.

Their case (for a war crimes investigation on Sri Lanka) is now being vigorously prosecuted by powerful third parties. When we read reports about how 41 British MPs from the ‘All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils’ have written to Prime Minister David Cameron urging an international investigation, that the US Senate adopted a resolution to the same effect, etc., etc., it should be borne in mind that these things happen in a social context where lobbying is permitted and its murkier side may be exploited.

The Sri Lankan government’s belated attempts to counter LTTE propaganda overseas have included measures such as the formal appointment of high profile international PR firms like Patton Boggs and Bell Pottinger and, going by media reports, other colossally expensive exercises as well. In contrast to the LTTE’s less visible but more sophisticated operations, these efforts seem clumsy and ill-conceived.

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