Letting Mohammed bin Salman off the hook

Despite global media coverage and condemnation by governments and human-rights activists, Saudi officialsʹ murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has not led to any meaningful sanctions. And such impunity is an important reason why the murder happened in the first place. By Leon Willems

By Leon Willems

The details of the brutal, premeditated murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are astonishing. For starters, there is the location: not some dark alley but inside his countryʹs consulate in Istanbul.

Next, there are the alleged perpetrators: a 15-member team that included a forensic doctor who once worked in Australia and brought a bone saw and a body double who put on Khashoggiʹs clothes – probably while they were still warm – and casually slipped out the back door. But the most shocking revelation may be this: the Saudis knew they could get away with murder.

Recent figures published by UNESCO, the United Nations organisation that is tasked, in part, with promoting the safety of journalists worldwide, show that in nine of ten cases, perpetrators are never punished for murdering a journalist. Because impunity is the norm, Saudi authorities took the gamble that even if the killing came to light, the consequences would be minor.

And they were right: although prosecutors in Saudi Arabia are seeking the death penalty for five of the suspects, the international response has so far been meek.

Economic interests are trump

Despite the global attention the murder has received, most leaders have only promised to "consider" sanctions against Saudi Arabia; others have dismissed the idea outright.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, top right, watches President Donald Trump, right, walk past while leaders gather for a group photo at the start of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 30 November 2018. Russia's President Vladimir Putin stands second from left. Brazil's President Michel Temer stands below the prince. Rwanda's President Paul Kagame stands top left (photo: picture alliance/AP Photo/R. Mazalan)
Counting on Trump: Saudi Arabia has rejected a resolution passed by the U.S. Senate on 13 December, which directly pinned the blame for the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The resolution was "based upon unsubstantiated claims and allegations, and contained blatant interferences in the Kingdom's internal affairs," a statement from the Saudi foreign ministry said

U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, has said that although the official Saudi explanation is unsatisfactory, he has no intention of responding by curbing arms sales or trade. Leaders in France and Spain have expressed similar sentiments.

Such bluntness illustrates that when economic interests are pitted against human rights, the former always take precedence. It is not only the loss of a journalistʹs life that needs to be mourned, but also the erosion of civil liberties and free speech – especially in the Middle East.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists reported last month, three of Saudi Arabiaʹs closest regional allies – the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – issued statements supporting the Kingdomʹs response to the Khashoggi killing. Saudi-owned domestic and pan-Arab media toed the line, too, while an army of online trolls quickly set to work to defend the Kingdomʹs rulers and smear its critics.Mere lip service to human rights

This type of whitewash is not limited to the Khashoggi case; it is even harder to find serious criticism in mainstream Arab media of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. With tens of thousands dead and a devastating famine threatening to kill millions more, the regionʹs news outlets are virtually silent on the role of the Kingdomʹs interventionist crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

If the international community genuinely cares about defending human rights, the rule of law and democratic values, it must denounce Saudi Arabiaʹs brutality.

A woman reacts as she takes part in a protest, opposing the visit of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Tunis, Tunisia, 27 November 2018 (photo: Reuters/Z. Souissi)
As Mohammed bin Salman toured the Middle East in the run-up to the G20 summit in Argentina, it was impossible to overlook the strength of popular outrage at the summary execution of Khashoggi – as here in Tunisia. As Leon Willems writes, "It is not only the loss of a journalistʹs life that needs to be mourned, but also the erosion of civil liberties and free speech"

One of the Middle Eastʹs most powerful countries is directly responsible for widespread death, destruction and misery. And yet Western countries are not only condoning these activities; in some cases, they are actively facilitating them by supplying the weapons.

Whose interests are really served when Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally of the West? It is certainly not the marginalised people of Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Nor is it anyone concerned with human rights, gender equality and many other values Western leaders claim to uphold.

Khashoggiʹs death must not be in vain

It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of journalists like Khashoggi to a country like Saudi Arabia. Without these purveyors of truth, institutional and political corruption would never be challenged.

That is why Saudi officialsʹ extrajudicial killing of a journalist overseas must not go unpunished; governments must urgently reconsider their alliance with the Kingdom. Simply condemning human rights violations without applying meaningful sanctions will not change its behaviour.

Beyond that, the international community must stop delegating the responsibility to investigate and prosecute the murder of journalists to the governments that wanted them dead. In most instances, the rule of law is too weak and the very people in charge are those who ordered the executions.

Justice may never be served in Khashoggiʹs case, but his murder must not be in vain. Governments that value transparency and free speech must work together to create an international tribunal to prosecute cases of slain journalists in countries unable or unwilling to do so themselves.

The alternative – allowing impunity to prevail – will let criminals off the hook and erode the very values that journalism is meant to defend.

Leon Willems

© Project Syndicate 2018

Leon Willems is Director of Free Press Unlimited.