By Taylor Dibbert | @taylordibbert
The U.S. Congressional Caucus on Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka held a hearing on July 9 in Washington, D.C. Good intentions notwithstanding, it’s unclear how powerful this caucus will be.
Since the conclusion of the nation’s civil war in May 2009, lobbying efforts regarding Sri Lanka have been intense in both Washington and New York City, headquarters of the United Nations (U.N.). These advocacy initiatives include ongoing efforts by the Sri Lankan government to deny serious war crimes allegations and to question concerns about accountability, reconciliation and the ongoing human rights abuses that remain so widespread on the island.
In fact, the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa currently pays four U.S. lobbying firms to defend its underwhelming record. Two groups were added last month, the Madison Group and Beltway Government Strategies.
Not surprisingly, services provided by these American lobbying firms aren’t cheap. Sri Lanka’s Central Bank has been paying the Thompson Advisory Group (TAG) more than $66,000 per month for its services. The Madison Group will earn at least $15,000 per month.
The World Bank describes Sri Lanka as a “Lower Middle Income” country. According to the Bank, the nation’s 2013 Gross National Income (GNI) per capita was $3,170 and nearly 7% of the population still lives under the poverty line. In this context, the government’s lobbying expenses may concern some people.
On the other hand, there are others who are willing to challenge the Rajapaksa regime’s questionable version of events – including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights activists.
Some critics of the regime have also sought the services of U.S. lobbying firms, but those expenses don’t come close to what the Sri Lankan government has paid. It’s also worth mentioning that many notable advocacy initiatives have been undertaken without the support of any lobbying firms. And, of course, there’s plenty of meaningful advocacy work on Sri Lanka that doesn’t include U.S. involvement, geographical or otherwise.
U.S. Congressional engagement on Sri Lanka should be encouraged, but when it comes to foreign policy it’s the executive that wields most of the power in Washington. With the passage of three U.S. – led resolutions on Sri Lanka at the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, the Obama administration hasn’t been ignoring this island nation. However – from media freedom to militarization – the human rights situation in Sri Lanka only continues to worsen.
Therefore, sustained international engagement is more needed than ever. If this recently created caucus raises awareness about Sri Lanka throughout the U.S. Congress and compels Mr. Obama to place additional pressure on the regime, then it’s something that should be welcomed.
Taylor Dibbert is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C. and the author of the book ‘Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth’. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.