In an attempt to burnish its tarnished reputation in Washington, Cambodia’s government has agreed to pay $70,000 a month to a U.S. lobbying firm known for representing some of the world’s most notorious regimes, according to papers lodged with the U.S. Justice Department.
Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States, Chum Sounry, signed a contract on Sept. 15 with Qorvis Communications, according to a filing made two days later and viewable on a website that records the registration of agents who represent foreign governments in the U.S.
In exchange for a $69,300 monthly retainer, Qorvis has agreed to “provide strategic communications and media relations services in support of increasing public awareness along with travel and tourism for the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Phnom Penh’s international reputation has plummeted in recent years. In response to increasingly autocratic governance and human rights violations, the European Union has stripped Cambodia of its preferential trade status and the U.S. government has imposed sanctions on powerful figures within Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. In response, Cambodia has gone on a lobbying spending spree, signing contracts with two agencies in 2019 alone.
One of those agencies, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, lobbied State Department employees not to pursue further sanctions against Cambodian officials, according to a source familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Many foreign governments hire lobbying firms to help press their case in the halls of power in Washington. But Dr Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia, said that as the latest firm to be signed up, Qorvis “should be ashamed of itself” for taking on the Cambodian government as a client.
“It’s absolutely disheartening to see that $70,000 per month is being spent on public relations to defend human rights abuses, destruction of democracy and un-freedom,” Ear told RFA. “Cambodia is now engaged in the purchase of coal-generated electricity, the clear-cutting of the last of its precious forests, sand-dredging, and so on. All of this should give Qorvis pause, but instead they look only at their balance sheet and profit and loss.”
Qorvis did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article on Thursday.
The firm was one of the few lobbyists not to drop Saudi Arabia as a client in the wake of the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. For roughly a decade Qorvis has represented Equatorial Guinea, which since 1979 has been subject to the deadly rule of its President Teodoro Obiang, whose son was made the subject of a travel ban and asset freeze by the United Kingdom this summer over allegations he embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds.
But filings with the Justice Department show that Qorvis also provides services to the office of the prime minister of Japan and the Republic of Fiji. However, it also serviced the latter while it was in the throes of a military government roughly a decade ago.
It remains to be seen precisely what services Qorvis will perform for Cambodia and for how long. The contract signed with Cambodia earlier this month stipulates that it can be terminated by either party at 30 days’ notice, and that the government may “adjust or otherwise fine tune the Services in accordance with [its] priorities as they may evolve over time.”
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