A United Nations human rights investigator has spoken out, claiming that the decision of the United States to name Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, responsible for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi while not punishing him in any way was “extremely dangerous”. The investigator went on to again state her belief that the U.S. should directly sanction the Prince, going further to say, “It is extremely problematic, in my view, if not dangerous, to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone ‘but we won’t do anything, please proceed as if have we have said nothing’. That to me is an extremely dangerous move on the part of the USA.”
This is not to say that the U.S. has done nothing. A travel ban on 76 Saudi individuals was issued and financial sanctions were placed on prominent government figures involved in the killing. The issue lies in the fact that the main perpetrator has escaped with barely as slap on the wrist. Of course, the U.S. would have had compelling reasons to take the course of action they did. Firstly, Saudi Arabia has long been viewed as a valuable ally in the Middle East, central to helping the U.S. protect Israel and keep Iranian expansionism at bay. Moreover, Saudi Arabia purchases billions annually in U.S. military equipment and maintains several important U.S. military and intelligence bases.
Speaking on the situation, Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby stated “Militarily speaking, we have obligations there in Saudi Arabia, and we’re going to continue to meet those.” This sort of dependency breeds situations like the current one, where the U.S., regardless of values it claims to embody and fight for, will ultimately bow under the weight of what it considers more pressing interests.
The message the U.S. is sending is also one rife with contradiction. In the early days of his presidency, Joe Biden vowed to take a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia, rolling out policies designed to curb weapon sales and curb the military presence of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Then, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken went on record claiming, “While the United States remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values. To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States.” So to now exercise such lenience when faced with the brutal murder of a U.S. citizen sends mixed signals.
Ultimately the problem with the U.S. refusal to sanction the Prince, is the message that it sends to him, those who would seek to act like him, and those who are victims of similar violent crimes. While it might be a stretch to say that U.S. actions are enabling Prince, they aren’t acting as a strong enough deterrent. Further, these actions and the lack thereof is sending a message to the Saudi people and the grieving family of Jamal Khashoggi, that there is little accountability and justice where prominent figures are concerned. Lastly, how can any U.S. citizen feel safe travelling abroad knowing that the U.S. will not protect their right to life and justice? Yet again, the U.S., which has long championed the title as a defender and protector of human rights, a title that the Biden administration eagerly adopted as they took office, has fallen short.
If the U.S. had acted, perhaps there would have been a risk that the Prince would have felt snubbed enough to form closer ties to Russia and China. But is the alternative, letting him believe he has gotten away with such human rights violations better? Is it better that the U.S. is seen as a self-interested actor, content to turn a blind eye with no guarantee that this kind of behavior towards journalists and dissidents won’t persist? It will be important in the coming years to watch how the new administration deals with the leadership in Saudi Arabia and difficult to imagine how far we are from the line that if crossed, would finally prompt the U.S. to take more definite action.
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