The increasing relevance of expatriate lobbying

Published in the Daily Star (August 16, 2007)

The right to petition your own government is a fundamental principle in a democratic society. Recently, however, there have been a number of high profile cases of expatriate Bangladeshis petitioning foreign governments to influence government policy within Bangladesh.

The campaign against the detention of MK Alamgir, the campaign against the deportation from the United States of AKM Mohiuddin Ahmed and a letter from a US Congressman to the ACC in support of a business tycoon are three examples of expatriate lobbying efforts that have appeared on the media’s radar.

Barring exceptional reversals in global communications and migration trends, expatriate lobbying is something that we can only expect to see more of in the future. A long term view of this trend is necessary. As such this is not an issue solely for the current government to consider, but for all successive ones as well.

Supporters of such campaigns generally argue that human rights issues are at stake. Sometimes, an issue is framed this way because the supporters believe that, should the campaign succeed, a precedent would be set that would discourage future violations of rights. These campaigns can thus make the implicit claim of speaking for broader societal interests.

However, while claiming to achieve these broader objectives, these campaigns simultaneously address the narrower interests of a specific constituency, be they the family of the person in question or a group with a specific agenda.

Skeptics of such campaigns tend to focus only on the individual in question, concentrating on his/her innocence or guilt. Further, they feel that such campaigns privilege people well-connected to and capable of using the global communications and/or rights protection networks. However, as mentioned above, there is no reason why such campaigns cannot be sustained beyond the context of the individual to the broader context of society, ensuring justice for people not connected to the global systems.

Petitioning or lobbying foreign governments by Bangladeshis is not a recent development, nor is it limited to expatriate Bangladeshis. During the Liberation War, representatives of the Mujibnagar government lobbied foreign governments to garner support for the independence movement and to spotlight the atrocities of the Pakistan army.

More recently private Bangladeshi corporations as well as political parties have hired lobbying firms to lobby the US government. The government of Bangladesh has also hired lobbyists in the past to lobby foreign governments to influence bilateral relations.

Whereas government lobbying efforts aim to further official Bangladesh government policy in foreign capitals, lobbying efforts by expatriates are often at odds with Bangladesh government policy. It is this aspect that makes expatriate lobbying controversial.

Lobbying efforts, whether by political parties or by corporations or individual expatriates, are not inherently good or bad, nor are they monolithic. Though foreign lobbying is generally viewed through the prism of human rights campaigns, the motivation for expatriate lobbying is varied — they range from human rights causes to furthering business or economic interests to advancing political goals.

They do however have one thing in common: they all seek to bring foreign pressure to bear on the Bangladesh government instead of solely working through the institutions and mechanisms available within Bangladesh.

One reason why a growing number of expatriate lobbying campaigns are initiated and sustained beyond our shores is the erosion of faith in our judicial system, our law enforcement agencies and any institution that is supposed to safeguard citizens’ rights against abuse. In other words, while greater migration and easier communications have no doubt facilitated such campaigns, this erosion of faith in the efficacy of our institutions is a major driver of expatriate lobbying.

Restoring faith in the consistency, neutrality and accountability of these institutions would lessen the incentive of expatriates to work outside the system and increase incentives to bring change within, at least on matters of human rights. In this regard, the recent decision to expand voting rights to expatriates is a step in the right direction.

Expatriate lobbying, like governmental and corporate lobbying, is a development that is likely to grow as global communications develops further and as national and international interests continue to collide. While development of government institutions in Bangladesh will encourage redressing of grievances without recourse to foreign pressure, there will always be foreign lobbying. Nonetheless, as institutions within Bangladesh develop, the government will be better equipped to deal effectively and positively with foreign lobbying efforts.

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