Khashoggi’s Murder: Unanswered Questions and International Inaction

December 14, 2018

It has been just over a month since the disappearance, and subsequent killing, of Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and the details of his death still remain very much unknown. What is known, however, is that on October 2, 2018, Khashoggi – a critic of the Saudi regime who has resided in the U.S. for the past year out of fear of retribution by the Saudi authorities – arrived at the Saudi consulate to retrieve the paperwork necessary to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, never to be seen again.

Within days of his disappearance, reports swirled of the possibility that the Saudi crown was behind his disappearance. The Saudi authorities initially claimed that he left the consulate on the day of his supposed disappearance, only to later walked back on these claims, conceding that Khashoggi did die in the consulate that day, supposedly as a result of a physical altercation with a group of regime operatives. These claims have been met by international skepticism: the most common suspicion – one touted openly by Turkey – is that a group of Saudi agents, under the direction of the crown and perhaps even Prince Mohammed bin Salman, murdered Khashoggi in retaliation for his brazen criticism of the regime.


From these earliest reports, countless developments have followed. On October 7th, Reuters reported that Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, claimed that Khashoggi was strangled in the consulate by fifteen Saudi operatives, who were then reported to have dismembered and dissolved Khashoggi’s body. Soon after these reports came the release of video footage showing a Saudi operative, wearing Khashoggi’s clothes, glasses, and a fake beard, leaving the consulate the day after his disappearance. Turkish media also released footage of consulate staff in Istanbul burning documents the day after the journalist’s disappearance, and most recently a video footage of consulate staff attempting to dismantle security cameras on the day of the disappearance and murder. In response to these damning reports and footage, Riyadh officials finally admitted that Khashoggi’s death was premeditated, but renounced any claims that the attack was carried out under the direction of the crown. Consequently, and perhaps as a means to divert attention from Saudi leadership, the capital has fired five top officials and 18 others in connection with the killing.


            However, the eyes of the international community remain on Saudi Arabia, with Turkish president Erdoğan continually claiming that the orders for Khashoggi’s murder flowed from the “highest levels” of Saudi government, though not from bin Salman himself, and demanding to know who orchestrated this murder and what was done with the journalist’s body. These cries for answers from Turkish leadership resulted in the release of audio recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation and murder to CIA director Gina Haspel, who traveled to Turkey to review all of the evidence gathered by the Turkish government. In addition to this ongoing investigation, mounting pressure on Saudi Arabia continues to flow from several states. Belgium, Germany, and Austria, have all banned the sale of arms to the nation, while the European Parliament urges the same.


However, some states are more hesitant to take action against Saudi Arabia. Britain and France, the European nations most likely to provide arms to Saudi Arabia, have refrained from issuing such ban on the sale of arms to the Saudis. Similarly, if not more, concerning, are the contradictory positions the U.S. has taken concerning the Khashoggi murder. President Trump, notorious for his anti-news media rhetoric and promotion of violence against journalists, has stated that the masterminds and executors of this murder should “be in big trouble.” However, it seems Trump’s rather shallow calls for retaliation are far more nominal than they are substantial, for Trump has simultaneously expressed his opposition to ceasing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, who provides the U.S. with billions of dollars’ worth of arms revenue. A similar sentiment was echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who stated that Khashoggi’s killers should be punished, but U.S. relations with Saudi should continue as usual. “We need to find out who was responsible, hold them accountable, and do all of this…while protecting the enormously important strategic interest the United States maintains with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” declared Pompeo, who touted the importance of Saudi Arabia in acting as a counterweight to the U.S.’s rival, Iran.


It seems, then, that the U.S., and its aforementioned European counterparts, have chosen to prioritize their own economic interests and position in political discord, at the expense of human rights protections globally. In refusing to take action against the inexcusable murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, these nations and international leaders are signaling that the human rights and principles of free speech that they hold as some of their most fundamental tenets, both domestically and abroad, are not immutable and uncompromising ideals; rather, they have issued a blank check for violence that renders basic human rights a commodity, one that can be bought and sold, so long as the price is right. This flexibility on rights and protections that should be non-negotiable not only sanctions the actions of Saudi leadership, but also signals to other states and leaders that would commit such heinous crimes that they can get away with just about anything – any human rights abuse – so long as they line the pockets of the international actors charged with holding them accountable for such abuses.


What is needed are not mere declarations that the actions of the Saudi regime are inexcusable and must be punished, with the same actors calling for punishment refusing to act on these calls. What is needed is an independent U.N. investigation, in conjunction with economic sanctions and an international arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, to send a clear and decisive message that violence and human rights abuses – in all their forms – will not be tolerated, not now, and not ever. If not, who knows how many more Khashoggi’s we, as an international community, will permit to be permanently silenced as a result of our own deafening silences.

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