As long as the U.S. stands firmly by Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom won’t face justice — or restrain itself.
On Wednesday, the United Nations released the results of a five-month investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Utilizing recordings and forensic evidence from inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi was killed, the 100-page report details the grisly final moments of the journalist’s life. The report suggested that Khashoggi first struggled with his killers, after which he “could have been injected with a sedative and then suffocated using a plastic bag.”
The report’s author, Agnes Callamard, the U.N. human rights agency’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, places guilt for the murder squarely on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, emphasizing the “individual liability” of many senior officials. There was “credible evidence,” the report said, of the direct involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Describing Khashoggi’s murder as a “deliberate, premeditated execution” and an “extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law,” Callamard called on the U.N. secretary general to establish an international criminal investigation.
Callamard also pointed to “Saudi Arabia’s continual denials and scene clean-up” following the killing, excoriating the kingdom’s lack of transparency, cover-up efforts, and hampering of Turkish law enforcement — enough, argued the report, to amount to obstruction of justice. She also deplored Saudi Arabia’s secretive prosecution of 11 Saudis supposedly linked to the crime who have quietly and anonymously been put on trial inside the kingdom. According to the report, these proceedings failed to meet international standards and should be handed over to the international community.
Despite the chilling and highly documented details of the report, Callamard’s articulate arguments are likely to go unheeded.
The findings reinforced public opinion, which already held the Saudi government, and bin Salman personally, accountable for Khashoggi’s death. While increasing the number of confirmed details on the public record, the report also largely echoes the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, which declared barely a month after the murder that the crown prince likely ordered the killing himself.
Callamard singled out the U.S., calling on the country to recognize its duties to Khashoggi as a legal U.S. resident and its jurisdiction to investigate, and prosecute, possible stateside links to the plot. It also called out the American government for failing to honor multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Committee to Protect Journalists for documents related to the CIA’s investigation of the crime.
Despite the chilling and highly documented details of the report, Callamard’s articulate arguments are likely to go unheeded. From the beginning of the Khashoggi affair, President Donald Trump set himself firmly in defense of the Saudi government and bin Salman, in particular. Trump has repeatedly and openly dismissed accusations against the crown prince, calling him a “very good ally” and refusing to accept the findings of his own intelligence community. Rather, he’s reassured Riyadh both rhetorically and materially, invoking the veto power to sustain U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and using emergency powers to pursue massive arms deals with the kingdom. Trump’s unequivocal, lavish support of the Saudi regime has garnered a rare level of bipartisan opposition, yet so far, the executive branch has largely won out.
Without a strong rebuke from the U.S., any international outcry is unlikely to influence Saudi behavior. Bolstered by a fawning president and strategic alliances with the United Arab Emirates and Israel, Riyadh has proven remarkably immune to anyone else’s critiques.
Such critiques have been mounting. For years, the international community has decried the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, largely a product of Saudi campaigns and U.S.-made weapons. Bin Salman’s imprisonment and possible torture of human rights activists, such as Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan, have elicited cries of horror from journalists and governments alike. Khashoggi’s murder ignited global outrage. Numerous countries have warned against the rising aggressions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, stoked and supported by U.S. hawks like John Bolton.
Yet each cycle of outcry has been followed by acts of further defiance on the part of the crown prince, who wasted little time after the Khashoggi affair to begin rehabilitating his image. In this effort, the U.S. has served as a loyal ally and often a direct enforcer of bin Salman’s agenda. This was evident in a report, published one day before Callamard’s, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blocked experts in his own State Department who intended to include Saudi Arabia on a list of regimes utilizing child soldiers. Pompeo’s denial contradicts not only his own specialists, but many other reports of the kingdom’s use of underage Sudanese fighters in Yemen. It was just another sign that the Trump administration is willing to deliberately overlook human rights concerns in favor of its strategic interest in Saudi dominance.
The implications of this pattern are grave — and the consequences are accelerating. With bin Salman’s erratic, violent tendencies unchecked, Saudi Arabia has taken an increasingly aggressive position in a region already beset by conflict. Recent strikes between Houthi fighters and Riyadh promise only escalation in war-battered Yemen, exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Confrontations in the Persian Gulf stoke an anti-Iran rhetoric in the Persian Gulf and the U.S. alike, now approaching a fever pitch. Meanwhile, Saudi courts are on track for a record number of executions, while scores of human rights activists and other civilians remain in prison. With the stakes continually rising, and Callamard’s carefully argued plea for justice likely to go unheeded, the potential body count of Mohammed bin Salman’s reign is likely to rise much further still.