Recalibrating Accountability

Jamal Khashoggi - Recalibrating Accountability

Lara Kajs | 15 July 2022 |

On 2 October 2018, sometime after 1 PM, Washington Post contributor and US resident Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and was never seen again. Since then, there has been outrage, Congressional Resolutions, and global demand for answers as to what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. Although it has been possible to piece together the acts that led to his death, two US presidents resigned to demand answers. Rather, the US said it was looking at recalibrating the relationship – thereby recalibrating accountability – with the Saudi government regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

In February 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report that implicated the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, citing his control of decision-making and his support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad. In the course of the investigation, the ODNI determined that the Saudi government changed its story multiple times. MBS emphatically denied any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. It has been suggested that there was an original plan of rendition, but that the plan changed to kill and dispose of (Jamal Khashoggi).

Further investigations revealed that Turkish intelligence had bugged the Saudi consulate previously and they produced about 5,000 hours of audio tape proving Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the hands of a Saudi hit squad. Although the tapes have only been heard by a very select few, Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur for extrajudicial killing listened to the tapes and addressed her findings to the UN Human Rights Council. Based on Ms. Callamard’s findings, the Human Rights Council determined that Jamal Khashoggi’s murder could only be described as a “state killing.”

Saudi Impunity

Since he came to the forefront of government, the Saudi Crown Prince (MBS) has been gathering all power within his hands; even eliminating critics. He has achieved such control over government that it is inconceivable that a rogue operation of this nature could have occurred without his approval or knowledge. And while he has levied some reforms that have benefited some Saudi Arabians, the fact remains that he is an autocrat of an oppressive regime with no respect for human rights.

Sadly, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi is not the only offense MBS has done. He is responsible for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen and his coalition has deliberately targeted humanitarian workers in the country. During my time in Yemen, the coalition targeted our team a dozen or more times, and on one occasion dropped a building on us. He is responsible for the bombing of schools, hospitals, and a school bus filled with children in his war on Yemen. While it may be difficult to judge intent – his actions are obvious, and his actions have been filled with malice.

Avoidance and Resistance

Yet despite the ODNI holding MBS liable, the US has stopped short of directly targeting the Crown Prince, stating that it is recalibrating its relationship with its longtime ally and oil provider, and it did not want to cause irreparable damage. Saudi Arabia is also the top buyer of US-made arms, many of which have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict in Yemen. That business relationship protected the Saudis from punitive sanctions under the Trump administration. In February, the Biden administration said that the US would no longer support the offensive operations in Yemen, and it ended sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in an effort to assess potential human rights abuses.

The Biden administration further defended its decision by pointing out that historically, sanctions have not been placed against leaders of foreign governments where there are diplomatic relations. The White House suggests that there are “other ways” – more effective ways than sanctions – to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again and suggests that it is planning to hold the Saudis accountable on a global stage. But no democracy, least of all the United States, can demand accountability in one breath and then acknowledge and pass the offense in the next, in order to maintain the relational status quo. Giving a pass because historically no administration has directly sanctioned a head of state seems to fail the litmus test here because when has a head of state played a direct role in such a heinous crime? Different actions call for different treatments.

While sanctions can be effective, they will not remove MBS from power and the Saudi government has already publicly declared that Saudi Arabia’s business is its own. Perhaps a more effective measure would be insisting on internal checks and closer monitoring of human rights violations, monitoring arrests, releasing prisoners of conscience, and ensuring Saudi citizens have the ability to speak out without fear of persecution. President Biden has repeatedly pledged to hold the Saudi leadership accountable. I hope that the President will make good on this pledge.

Free Speech – Free from Intimidation and Murder

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Free speech is one of those freedoms celebrated in the U.S. and has been upheld repeatedly by the U.S. Supreme Court. So, it is inconceivable that a core principle of our democracy can be taken away in such a savage manner and be given a pass – even if that violation occurred in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. If the US wants to recalibrate the relationship, it should start by insisting that people be allowed to express themselves, to dissent. There has to be a stronger message sent to Saudi Arabia, to MBS, and to other countries, and leaders who commit such human rights violations, that it will not be tolerated and will certainly not be excused. Anything less is not justice.

While Jamal Khashoggi is a single individual, he was a human being who was brutally murdered for expressing his views in a peaceful manner. What is significant about the Khashoggi murder is that a head of state ordered the murder of someone who was arguing for human rights. But the much larger issue is that two American presidents have brushed away the Saudi government’s (MBS) involvement and given a pass to the murder of a US resident in a foreign consulate. Both are wrong. While maintaining a productive relationship with other leaders is important, when those relationships are fractured it takes more effort; it should not condone or lend itself to covering up a murder, especially one as heinous as the murder of a US resident in a Saudi consulate.

Photo Credit: Torture in the Kingdom – by POMED – License by CC 2.0 license.