Possible criminal charges are being investigated against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by Argentine authorities, as the Group of 20 (G20) international world leaders summit approaches this week in Buenos Aires. On Monday, The New York Times reported that the inquiry being conducted will centre not only on the Khashoggi murder case, but also on allegations of torture within Saudi Arabia and war crimes committed during the Saudi-led military intervention in neighbouring Yemen. The G20 summit meeting, attended by leaders of the world’s strongest economies, presents an important test for the 30-year-old Saudi prince, who is expected to arrive in Buenos Aires on November 30.
There has been considerable upheaval since the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, heightened by American intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the prince authorized his assassination. Though advocacy group Human Rights Watch formally initiated the investigation by suggesting Argentina use a war crimes clause within its constitution to investigate the assassination and possible crimes against humanity in Yemen, the feasibility of attaining accountability has been met with skepticism. Diplomatic immunity and other forms of protection may shield the prince from potential charges, noted The New York Times. Moreover, given that the investigation is in its early stages, Argentine officials have suggested it is “extremely unlikely” that an arrest warrant could be produced before the prince’s arrival in Buenos Aires.
Despite this, Argentina’s actions reflect an important stance that is very different from U.S. President Donald Trump’s erratic but strategic response. Despite the conclusions of American intelligence agencies, President Trump is reluctant to hold Prince Salman responsible for Khashoggi’s death, stating “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” have knowledge of the assassination plan. His response has focused on ensuring that the U.S. does not damage its economic and strategic interests, because arms sales, oil supplies, and the containment of Iran rest on good relations with Prince Salman. While support for the Prince has been bolstered by this and by fellow Saudi allies in the region, the move by Argentine prosecutors reflects an important interruption to his ‘victory lap.’ Importantly, the inquiry will not ignore the Saudi-led three-and-a-half-year combing campaign and naval blockade of Yemen, as Saudi Arabia may have committed crimes against humanity in their quest to remove from power a Yemeni faction allied with Iran. Human Rights Watch’s petition, which was delivered to the Argentine judicial system on Monday, indicts Prince Salman as responsible for multiple violations of international law, which include but are not limited to “indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes on civilians.”
Argentina’s recognition of universal jurisdiction for war crimes and torture enables judicial authorities in the country to investigate and prosecute these crimes, irrespective of where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the victims. This recognition is an important means of holding accountable those responsible for atrocities and sending a message that human rights abusers cannot use immunity in other countries as a shield. Argentina is not the only country refusing to stand idly by. Al Jazeera has reported that over the last two days, hundreds of Tunisians took to the streets of the capital to protest the visit by the Saudi Crown Prince on Tuesday.
The G20 summit comes at a crucial time, because leaders can show that they are not willing to turn a blind eye and prop up powerful individuals beyond the reach of the law. While it is doubtful that Argentine prosecutors will able to produce an arrest warrant before Prince Salman leaves Buenos Aires, the step being taken is important nonetheless, because it shows that they are not willing to sideline justice and accountability for crimes against humanity in favor economic and strategic interests.
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