Inaction in the Ghastly Jamal Khashoggi Killing Gives Autocrats What They Crave — Impunity
If human rights seem a nebulous and nice-to-have ideal, then the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government operatives while on foreign soil — and the ensuing firestorm in the international media — has helped the world understand how crucial the rights of the individual human being are in the face of state power bent to malevolent purposes.
On October 2, Mr. Khashoggi — a Saudi national living in the U.S. and writing opinion columns for The Washington Post critical of the current Saudi government — disappeared in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where he had gone to pick up documents finalizing his divorce that would enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée.
Perhaps it’s this mundane errand on a to-do list — a human being just going about his normal business, as is his natural human right — reinforced by the endless loop of camera footage showing Mr. Khashoggi crossing the sidewalk to enter the consulate — and to meet his death — that has seized the world’s attention and resonated.
And yet: Over 100 days later, little action has been taken by the world’s institutions against Saudi Arabia for this outrage inflicted on an innocent human being.
At a time when autocrats around the world are increasing in number and power and audacity, when erstwhile democracies are turning illiberal under strongman rule, it is deeply unnerving to witness this elemental weapon in an autocrat’s arsenal — impunity — be moved into place.
Unless forestalled, soon autocrats can literally get away with (state) murder.
Sadly, the United States of America, once upon a time the Leader of the Free World and chief promoter of human rights on the international stage, has gone missing at this crucial juncture. President Donald Trump, a moral midget, takes a transactional view, insisting U.S. arms deals not be sacrificed for a killing allegedly ordered by his autocratic Saudi peer, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) — “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Of course, Mr. Trump exhibits certain autocratic tendencies himself, referring to “my generals” and demanding loyalty, not independence, from “my” Attorney General. Meanwhile, “his” intelligence apparatus confirms MBS ordered the killing.
Also unedifying to witness: Another autocrat, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, metering out details of Mr. Khashoggi’s grisly killing, details acquired from his own omnipresent intelligence apparatus, and sharing them with the world, not for any humane purpose — Erdogan regularly jails his political critics and dissident journalists — but for geopolitical leverage in the region.
Human rights were declared sacred in the aftermath of World War II — a historic response to a half-century of bloody warfare and to millennia of ill treatment of the masses by their rulers. Established shortly after the United Nations itself was established, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt) affirms in its preamble “the dignity and worth of the human person” and, centrally, the right to freedom of speech and belief. Various articles enumerate various human rights: to “life, liberty and security of person”; to “freedom of opinion and expression”; not to be tortured or held in slavery or subject to arbitrary arrest; to equal protection before the law; presumption of innocence until proven guilty; freedom of movement within any state — all rights belonging to Mr. Khashoggi that were violently violated, including the right to marry and found a family. Other articles enumerate the right to an education, to work, to “social security.”
The ideal forum for action on the Khashoggi case would be the United Nations itself, of course. Asked about the need for an international inquiry, the head of the U.N.’s High Commission on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet (former president of Chile), stated: “I do believe it is really needed in terms of ensuring what really happened and who are the [people] responsible for that awful killing.” Would that there were more determination expressed to launch said inquiry. This was early December; meanwhile, the world waits. Others call for the U.N. Security Council to set up a special international tribunal. As The Guardian argues, justice for this barbaric act “means, inevitably, a trial.”
Human rights organizations are in the forefront demanding a full accounting on the Khashoggi case, including, in the U.S., Human Rights Watch (see its report, “Reversing Autocrats’ Attacks on Rights”) and Human Rights First. It is a shock to see, in these organizations’ country reports, the United States cited for human rights violations along with the likes of Russia and China. Human Rights First castigates U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent “New Beginning” speech as a “return to unconditional support for repression.”
As to freedom of speech and opinion, the killing of Mr. Khashoggi has stirred deep unease in his fellow journalists around the world, especially those living outside their country. Autocrats, brooking no criticism, label dissident journalists as “the enemy of the people.” Recognizing this newly dangerous global environment, Time magazine named journalists, including notably Mr. Khashoggi, as “Person of the Year” for 2018, calling them “guardians of the truth” (also here). The U.N. has characterized the political incitement to violence against journalists as “toxic”: Incredibly, between 2006 and 2017, one journalist was killed every four days somewhere in the world. The U.N. urges member states to take firm steps to reverse and resist “the appalling trend of impunity.”
Impunity — the freedom of autocrats to engage in state-sponsored murder and other mayhem to silence their critics — would be catastrophic for human rights, writ both large and small. Jamal Khashoggi, dissident journalist and patriot, was on a mundane errand when he disappeared forever. If he could, he would protest every abrogation of his human rights manifested in his own murder, just as he’d long been doing. His final column for The Washington Post, published posthumously, was titled “What the Arab World Needs Most is Free Expression.”
For Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post, see here.