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The disappearance of the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 heightened controversy surrounding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was revealed to be implicated in his killing. But a few weeks in, the initial furore expressed by world leaders was meted, and a “business as usual” approach has arguably ensued while investigations run their course.
One such investigation was carried out by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard. Published on June 19, 2019, it was presented to the Human Rights Council on June 26. In the report, Callamard deduced that Khashoggi had been the victim of a “premeditated extrajudicial execution, for which the State of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” As a non-binding report, what impact does this allegation have?
On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to collect paperwork for his marriage but never came out. By October 3, the Saudi government confirmed that the 59-year-old journalist was missing but denied knowledge of his fate. In the following days, evidence started mounting that Saudi officials had carried out his murder, including claims that a 15-men strong hit squad had arrived in Istanbul from Saudi Arabia on September 29. As pressure kept building, Saudi Arabia started to concede that Khashoggi was dead, initially claiming he died in a “fist-fight” with officials, before reframing their version to say he was killed in a rogue operation.
However, Saudi and Turkish prosecutors found evidence of premeditation, as well as proof of death by strangulation and dismemberment of his body. They also found that the order to carry out the assassination came from the “highest levels” of Saudi Arabia’s government.
The 99-page report is based on a six-month investigation, which cited Turkish audio recordings of Saudi officials discussing dismembering Khashoggi’s body. The report also states that the forensic cleaning of the Saudi consulate indicated a cover-up.
Callamard noted that six violations of international law took place as a result of the incident, including the arbitrary deprivation of life, an extraterritorial use of force, the Saudi state’s use of consular mission for official purpose, torture, enforced disappearance and violation of the freedom of expression. Four further violations took place due to the lack of action from the Saudi state, which violated several of its obligations: the obligation to investigate the murder effectively, transparently, and in good faith, to cooperate with international actors in investigating this unlawful death, as well as the obligation of non-repetition and to grant people – in this case, Khashoggi – a fair trial. The Saudi state’s record on arbitrary imprisonment also came under fire.
In addition to these conclusions, the UN report called on states, both the ones involved in the case and other countries, to take measures under international law and to iterate further investigation into the individual liability of high-level Saudi officials, including that of the Crown Prince.
So far, after initially detaining 18 officials for their potential involvement in the murder, the Kingdom has prosecuted 11 of them, while 17 officials have been given sanctions.
In the UN report, Callamard writes that these measures do not go far enough, as the country has so far been unable to address central failures and questions over the “chain of command” and senior leadership responsibility.
While diplomats from the UN Security Council‘s permanent members (UK, France, USA, Russia, China) are allowed to attend the trial, they are likely to be summoned at short notice to attend proceedings, and these are being held entirely in Arabic without interpreters.
Callamard’s report has also so far failed to elicit a strong response from Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, dismissing it and claiming that Callamard “breached procedures that need to be applied to the special rapporteurs.”
Some analysts claim that this case could hurt Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation, as he has tried to come across as a progressive leader of the petrostate, and particularly his diplomatic stature. Middle East security expert Dr Andreas Krieg told TRT World that right now many policymakers are making a distinction between MBS (a common acronym by which Mohammed bin Salman is referred) and the state, but that could turn challenging after the Crown Prince becomes king: “Foreign dignitaries do not want to be seen shaking hands with someone like MBS”, Krieg said. Yet according to Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington, the Crown Prince’s hold on power in the country “appears absolute.”
Speaking to Fanack Chronicle, Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North African analyst for the geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor, says that in many ways, MBS is the Saudi state.
“He controls a lot of the levers of the security apparatus, he controls a great deal of its economic product of economic programmes,” said Bohl, adding that “his father has shown pretty much very, very strong confidence in him in most decisions that he’s made.”
Prior to the report, the initial tough rhetoric on the events coming from international allies and businesses appeared to have softened. U.S. President Donald Trump. He initially responded to the Saudi narrative of events, saying “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies,” while UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that “if the appalling stories we are reading turn out to be true, they are fundamentally incompatible with our values and we will act accordingly.”
In addition, various international business and political officials decided to boycott the Saudi’s Future Investment Initiative conference in 2018, including the banks HSBC and JP Morgan, the U.S treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and the British trade minister Liam Fox.
International arms deals have, however, continued and since the report, Donald Trump has skirted answers on whether calls for an FBI investigation will be acted on, saying it’s “been heavily investigated,” while making the point that Saudi Arabia buys substantial American wares.
Congresspeople, on the other hand, have showed an increasing anti-Saudi sentiment and the U.S. Senate even blocked a billion-dollar deal that would have involved arms sales to Saudi Arabia, although Trump used his veto power to push it through.
Bohl told Fanack Chronicle that the U.S. has signaled that it’s not interested in using human rights as a foreign policy objective, particularly when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
“Jared Kushner and bin Salman communicate regularly, they have a personal relationship. And we know the Trump administration values those kinds of relationships quite a great deal to get their business done”, Bohl said. Bohl added that the US Congress would need a super-majority to overcome the President’s veto pattern.
However, the UN report fuels a trend that sees people and institutions calling for more public discourse around future relations with the Kingdom, Bohl argued.
A recent Court of Appeal ruling in London found the British government’s granting of export licences to Saudi Arabia illegal because it had not properly assessed if weapons manufactured by U.K. companies were used as part of the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive in Yemen. Civil society data indicates that the coalition has been responsible for more than 8,000 deaths in Yemen since 2015.
“The Khashoggi report could be something that works its way into a European court,” Bohl said. Or it could be used by a future Democratic U.S. administration or by a British Labour government to point toward and factor into how they manage their relationship with Saudi Arabia.
In the report, Callamard also suggested that new mechanisms at UN level were needed to strengthen the prevention and criminal investigation of targeted killings. That ball is now in the court of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
While human rights campaigners, such as Amnesty International‘s Middle East Director of Research Lynn Maalouf, have called on Guterres “to immediately take up the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation to launch an international follow-up criminal investigation,” Bohl said the U.S. will “attempt to slow down and hinder” efforts to try and hold senior officials accountable.
At the very least, Callamard’s report adds to a body of evidence that can be leveraged by actors seeking accountability for actions outside of international law. But any path toward transparent justice for Jamal Khashoggi is unlikely to be straightforward.