In case you missed it, earlier this month the United Nations Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard issued a report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a legal resident of the United States under a so-called “genius” visa. The report, which you should read in its entirety, finds that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible for his killing and, in doing so, violated multiple counts of international human rights law, as well as the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The report also finds, among other things, “the circumstances of the killing of Mr. Khashoggi may constitute an act of torture under the terms of the Convention Against Torture, ratified by Saudi Arabia.”
The report includes a blow-by-blow account of the events that transpired in the embassy. These are almost entirely based on Turkish audio surveillance, as KSA officials scrubbed the scene of the crime. While waiting for Khashoggi to arrive, one of the killers refers to him as a “sacrificial animal.” They discuss dismembering him. The murder itself is most likely to have been accomplished by injecting Khashoggi with a sedative and suffocating him with a plastic bag.
As Bruce Riedel notes,
The Saudis immediately labeled the rapporteur’s report as nothing new, the latest in their pathetic attempts to cover up the murder as a “rogue” operation. The report instead documents how the Saudi embassy in Washington specifically told Khashoggi that he must travel to Turkey to get documents for his impending wedding, that once he showed up at the consulate, Riyadh ordered the consul general to send two security officers to the kingdom for “top secret” instructions and then dispatched a Special Operations team to Istanbul to deal with Khashoggi.
Overall, the report leaves little doubt that culpability extends to high levels of the KSA government.
In the United States, the Khashoggi murder marked in a tipping point for congress. A bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate subsequently voted to invoke the War Powers Resolution over America’s involvement in the Kingdom’s brutal war in Yemen. However, Trump successfully vetoed it. Most recently,
The Senate on Thursday passed three measures to block President Trump from using his emergency authority to complete several arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but fell short of the support needed to overcome a pledged veto.
Trump has cited rising tensions with Iran as justification for using his emergency powers to complete the deals.
A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), had filed 22 resolutions of disapproval against the sales — one for every contract the administration had expedited by emergency order, effectively sidestepping congressional opposition. But after weeks of negotiations, Senate leaders agreed to hold just three votes encompassing the substance of all resolutions seeking to block the deals.
Trump, according to congressional aides, would still have to issue 22 individual vetoes even though the Senate resolutions were bundled into three.
From the murder of Khashoggi to a crackdown on women’s rights activists, there’s been something of a spotlight on the brutality of the regime of late. But Saudi Arabia’s longstanding record on human and political rights is abysmal. Americans are probably most familiar with its role in exporting its own brand of Islamism, but it’s also been an important player in sustaining repressive regimes throughout the region. During the Arab Spring, for example, the Kingdom provided important support—including actual troops—for Bahrain’s efforts to smash pro-democracy activists and to purge Shia professionals.
But, of course, none of this is simple. The US-Saudi alliance has long been a lynchpin of American Middle East policy. Strong U.S. backing for the war in Yemen began under the Obama Administration. Indeed, in tandem with its pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal, Obama took a number of steps to reassure Saudi Arabia that the U.S. remained committed to the relationship. New administrations may consider rethinking the alliance, but it endures.
At some point, though, Washington needs to at least clearly signal that there are limits to unqualified American support. Those limits have been tested in the last year, yet the Trump administration has gone above and beyond when it comes to running interference for the Kingdom. The fact that Trump and his inner circle have personal economic incentives to maintain good relations only makes things worse.
Given these politics, there is a good chance that the Democratic nominee will make noises about recalibrating US-Saudi relations. Neither Sanders nor Warren, for example, have shied away from the subject. If the Democrats do retake the White House, we need to do our best to make sure that they at least take a long, hard look at the status quo ante.