The Khashoggi Killing at Six Months: How Congress Should Move Forward

Tomorrow marks six months from the day agents of Saudi Arabia murdered Virginia resident, Washington Post columnist, and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Though Saudi leaders initially denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts, they’ve more recently admitted that he was incapacitated and killed in what they’ve described as an “accident.” Khashoggi’s body, reportedly hacked into pieces, has yet to be found.

Half a year later, accountability for Khashoggi’s murder remains unrealized, and the U.S.-Saudi relationship remains in limbo. Despite news reports that the CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) likely ordered the assassination, Saudi leaders appear thus far to have gotten away with premeditated murder.

Six months from now, will this state of affairs be meaningfully different? Given what we know of MBS and his apologists in the Trump administration, the answer to that question rests primarily on how members of Congress address the question of imposing costs on an ostensible ally. Lawmakers have yet to coalesce behind an approach that would levy sanctions against all of Khashoggi’s killers, perhaps including MBS.

One way to do so would be to build conditions into any sanctions legislation that would spell out for Saudi leaders the steps they would need to take to earn sanctions relief. Such conditions could relate both to the Saudis’ highly-flawed, ongoing investigation into the murder, and to broader human rights issues within the kingdom. Approaching the problem this way could conceivably build political will within the United States for meaningful action, while at the same time incentivizing human rights reforms in a key regional partner.

Trump Administration Responsibility

Much of the responsibility for Saudi Arabia’s success in covering up Khashoggi’s killing rightfully lands at the feet of the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has cited a controversial legal maneuver as justification for his decision not to adhere to the Global Magnitsky Act, a law authorizing sanctions against human rights abusers that would force the administration to provide congressional leaders with a list of those the U.S. believes are responsible for the murder. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has supported the president’s decision, consistently hewing to the credulous (some would say cynical) position that the U.S. government should largely rely on a Saudi-led investigation to inform its actions.

Saudi Arabia is conducting a secret trial of 11 unnamed individuals it says are responsible for the killing, with the kingdom’s prosecutors reportedly seeking the death penalty against five defendants. Pompeo, like the Saudis, insists that the kingdom’s investigation seeks to uncover the truth, rather than to obscure it. The State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report on Saudi Arabia, released under Pompeo’s name last month, tells a very different story.

In that report, the Saudi government is described as engaging in “unlawful killings…forced renditions; forced disappearances…torture of prisoners and detainees…and arbitrary arrests and detention.” The kingdom’s criminal justice system, meanwhile, is described as “lack[ing] a comprehensive written penal code,” with many defendants “convicted in trials that [do] not meet international minimum fair trial standards.” When Secretary Pompeo states that he believes Saudi officials will conduct a “thorough, transparent, and timely investigation,” that system is the object of his professed faith.

Despite the Trump administration’s apparent desire to sweep Khashoggi’s killing under the rug, lawmakers, activists, and journalists have kept the killing in the public eye – no small feat in a moment of perpetual scandal and fleeting attention. That’s in part because the murder was both staggering in its violation of norms of international conduct and profound in its wider implication. In killing Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s leaders meant to send a signal to dissidents everywhere: you can run, but you can’t hide. If you dare criticize our brutality, we will find you, and we may kill you.

Autocrats Take Sustenance

Regrettably, Saudi leaders are far from alone in broadcasting this message. From Russians murdered with chemical agents in Britain, to Chinese citizens disappeared from Hong Kong, to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un assassinating his uncle in Malaysia, authoritarian leaders feel increasingly emboldened to capture or kill anyone, anywhere, who dares challenge their rule. President Trump’s well-established sympathy for dictators has done nothing to curb this worrying trend.

Still, Khashoggi’s case stands apart. He wasn’t an American citizen, but he was a man who found refuge from a repressive regime, like so many before him, on American soil. When MBS ordered Khashoggi’s rendition or killing, the Saudi crown prince knew he was taking these actions against a U.S. resident, and clearly thought he could get away with it.

To let the murder vanish into the fog of memory is, thus, to acquiesce to the belief that strongmen can do what they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. Allowing such a world is dangerous to every one of us, American and foreigner alike.

With the Saudi government engaged in posturing at home and stymying international legal justice mechanisms abroad, the Congress should enforce a semblance of accountability through economic and travel-related sanctions aimed directly at the murder’s authors, not just the relatively low-level assemblage of Saudis sanctioned by the Trump administration to date.

The Senate has already resolved, unanimously and unambiguously, that this group rightfully includes MBS. A bipartisan group of senators also has introduced a provision in a larger bill focused on Saudi Arabia and Yemen that likely would result in sanctions on MBS if enacted and faithfully executed by the Trump administration.

This sanctions provision is consequential, given that it would block the assets and restrict the travel of a quasi-head of state. But so too was the killing, both in its premeditated brutality and in its larger import. If the United States is to send an unmistakable signal that Khashoggi’s killing crossed a line, as many believe it did, the penalty by no means exceeds the crime.

Sanctions … With an Off-Ramp

Yet sanctions aren’t really about imposing consequences; they’re meant to incentivize policy change. This brings some to worry that, were the Congress to sanction MBS, his designation would be, in effect, permanent, and thus rather pointless from a policy perspective.

This dilemma is why smartly crafted sanctions should include conditions under which MBS and other Saudi leaders could demonstrate that what they did to Khashoggi will never happen again, and that they are committed to broader human rights reform, in exchange for delisting.

Such conditionality could include verifiable Saudi cooperation with international investigators looking into the murder, as well as steps to bring the trial of Khashoggi’s killers in line with basic international legal standards. Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur investigating the killing, recently announced a list of steps that the Saudi government should take in this regard. Converting Callamard’s recommendations, which include publicly naming those accused and making the trial’s proceedings and evidence public, into certifiable conditions for sanctions relief makes eminent sense.

Sanctions relief conditions also should extend beyond the Khashoggi case itself. These could include, at a minimum, the verifiable abolishment of MBS’s reported personal assassination squad; the release of all jailed human rights activists and independent journalists; the documented end of systemic torture by Saudi authorities; and the abolishment of guardianship laws that relegate Saudi women to second-class citizenship.

Demanding improvements with respect to human rights in Saudi Arabia in exchange for normalizing relations won’t bring Khashoggi back to life, of course. But positive movement on this front could bring new meaning to Khashoggi’s death, possibly leading to better lives for millions of Saudis and the reestablishment of a sustainable U.S.-Saudi relationship. That’s a cause the Congress should get behind, even if the administration won’t.

IMAGE: A protest sign reading “Khashoggi way” across the street from the White House in Washington, DC, on Dec. 23, 2018. Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to the Washington Post, was killed on October 2 shortly after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in what Riyadh called a “rogue” operation. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  

About the Author(s)

Rob Berschinski

Senior Vice President for Policy at Human Rights First, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Follow him on Twitter (@RobBerschinski).