'White Knight' lobbying

When it comes to fighting human rights abuse in countries where democratic standards are missing or often ignored, most of us would associate respective lobbying activity with non-profit human rights organisations. For many years, NGOs have been advocating on behalf of genocide victims, imprisoned human rights activists or simply individuals arrested on false grounds for political motives across the globe. These NGOs stand up for the allegedly poor ones in the world.

But there is another side of this lobbying business. It is growing. And it is surprising at first glance. It is the business of “White Knight” lobbying.

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The recent release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a case in point. It is a testament to the benefits of “White Knight” lobbying with all its strategy and tactics.

In countries with a lack of democratic history, former politicians often become the victims of their own reform agendas. Former businessmen who fall apart with their home country regime get imprisoned. Political opponents are put in jail after a government change.

In most people's perception these cases are somehow different from the Amnesty activist who gets beaten up by the police. This is because those people once were part of "the system" themselves. But exactly for that reason they often have to suffer even more under the persecution and intimidation from their political enemy who is now in charge, culminating in fake allegations by the system that toppled them, leading to imprisonment, ignoring national and international standards. What those systems usually seek is revenge. Not justice. And often the new governments fear the old players too much to let them go free as well. So they lock them up. Possibly forever. Which can best be done without a proper trial.

To be crystal clear: The point is not that these former politicians or businessmen did no wrong. The point is that even if they did so they deserve to be treated fairly in a civilized society. It is the civilized world's task to ensure that questionable governments behave orderly. And it is the lobbyists' task to ensure that the civilized world doesn't forget to do so.

Lobbying firms are therefore increasingly working to defend the human rights of former politicians and businessmen that are being take on by their governments. And rightfully so. These people need a “White Knight” to lobby their legitimate interests in places like Washington DC and Brussels to ensure that pressure from those decision makers gives them a fair trial at home - or release from prison.

A large number of those political prisoners rely on lobbying services after all legal recourses in their home country have terminated. Political lobbying following national and international judgements helps increase the pressure, maintain the momentum and keep the cases on the agenda. Others try to ensure that things don't turn out bad for them in the first place. By having lobbyists from Washington D.C. and Brussels visibly monitor what is happening to them at home. And calling for international intervention on behalf of their client in the process if necessary.

Most of these political prisoners do not fulfil the criteria of “prisoners of conscience”. Which is the basis upon which leading human rights organizations operate. As a result of this strict definition, their cases are not part of the lobbying efforts of NGOs. They are left with no choice but to lobby individually and directly to the international community. Even when included in the efforts of human rights groups, many seek additional lobbying support by relying on experienced lobbying firms for a number of reasons:

First, the joint efforts are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they only help reinforce the message and increase the chances of results.

Second, private lobbying firms focus solely on their individual cases. They are able to inform the relevant decision makers in greater detail of the facts on the ground.

Third, individual lobbying eliminates the risk of being overshadowed by more high-end cases of political prisoners, which naturally garner more media coverage and attention.

Fourth, many political prisoners have been imprisoned for several years and it is difficult for many human rights organizations to advocate for all the cases with the same intensity.

Lobbying firms can do that. They can keep their clients case high on the agenda of the decision makers. They provide a more thorough representation, as they are able to take into account external events and bilateral cooperation agreements and use them to the advantage of their clients. So this business will surely grow.

Geiger is a partner in Alber & Geiger, the leading EU government relations law firm. The firm recently successfully lobbied the release of two leading former political and business personalities from imprisonment in Azerbaijan.

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