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UN report blames Saudi for Khashoggi's murder. What next?

Khashoggi, a critic of MBS, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 [File: Lefteris Pitarakis/ AP]

In a new report that blames Saudi Arabia for Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, a United Nations human rights expert has provided a minute-by-minute account of the journalist’s execution and dismemberment inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city.

Those details, based on Turkish intelligence audio recordings, make for grim reading.

They recounted how the Washington Post columnist’s suspected killers discussed cutting up and transporting a body as they waited for what they called the arrival of the “sacrificial animal”.

“Joints will be separated … If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished,” one of the suspects is quoted as saying in Wednesday’s report.

The recordings and other evidence collected during a six-month investigation showed Khashoggi’s death on October 2 last year was “planned” and “premeditated”, said Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.

Holding Saudi Arabia “responsible” for the murder, the rapporteur said there was “credible evidence” to warrant further investigation of the involvement of high-level Saudi officials in the murder, including that of the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Callamard urged UN bodies, particularly the office of the secretary-general (UNSG), to launch an international criminal investigation and called for sanctions against MBS.

Hours after the release of the report, Saudi Arabia dismissed Callamard’s findings as “nothing new” and “baseless”. But Turkey “strongly endorsed” the rapporteur’s call for accountability.

What will Guterres do?

Analysts said Callamard’s report lent credibility to widely-reported Turkish intelligence leaks on high-level Saudi involvement in the assassination of Khashoggi, a critic of MBS. Still, much depended on the response of Antonio Guterres, the UN chief, as well as that of the United States, where the journalist was living in self-imposed exile at the time of his killing. 

Hours after Callamard’s investigation, a spokesman for Guterres said the UN chief could only launch an inquiry with a mandate from “a competent intergovernmental body”. To pursue a criminal investigation that would oblige all countries to cooperate would require a UN Security Council resolution, he added. 

But Callamard said she believed the UN chief “should be able to establish a follow-up criminal investigation without any trigger” by other UN bodies or member states. “It would be absurd to limit the intervention of the UNSG to such scenarios,” she added.

The call was supported by prominent rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Urging Guterres to “immediately take up” Callamard’s recommendation, Amnesty’s Middle East Director of Research Lynn Maalouf said the measure was necessary because steps taken by Riyadh to ensure accountability has been “inadequate”. 

But Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat and senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council think-tank, said Guterres was unlikely to initiate a criminal probe.

“That leaves the Security Council [to trigger the launch of an investigation], but I fear the US, under President Donald Trump, will block any action in the Security Council or in the UN General Assembly. The other relevant body is the UN Human Rights Council. But Saudi Arabia sits on the body and may be able to stop other countries from launching an inquiry.”

Calling the Callamard investigation “remarkable in its specifics”, Bryza added: “These shocking and horrific details make the Saudi government’s claim this was an interrogation that went off the rails seem absurd and impossible to be true … an impartial UN investigation is required.”


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But for that to happen, a change in the US government’s approach was needed, he said.

The US factor

The US’s spy agency has reportedly blamed MBS for Khashoggi’s murder, while US senators have passed a resolution assigning responsibility for the killing to the crown prince.

But Trump, despite calling the murder an “unacceptable and horrible crime”, has insisted the US plans “to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia” to ensure Washington’s business and political interests, including reported multi-billion dollar arms sales and countering its arch-foe, Iran.

“Saudi Arabia is seen as too big to fail to allow instability,” said Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “It is the largest importer of arms in the world. And the largest suppliers are, of course, the United States and many European countries after that. It is also vital to world’s oil supplies.” 

Momani said the Trump administration would be reluctant to move against Saudi Arabia because of its ongoing confrontation with Iran.

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Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen since last year when Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of a landmark nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers in 2015. Since its withdrawal, Washington has reimposed and tightened sanctions on Tehran in a “maximum pressure” campaign it said was aimed at curbing its nuclear and ballistic missiles programme. The frictions ratcheted up in recent weeks in the wake of mysterious incidents that caused damage to commercial ships near the shipping lane of Strait of Hormuz, which the US has blamed on Iran over Iranian denials.

“Increasingly, the Trump administration wants to divert attention to happenings in the Persian Gulf and Iranian attacks on tankers there – and they need the Saudis on side,” Momani said. “These are some of the factors that are just not in favour of sanctioning the Saudis despite the fact they probably do have a lot of culpability in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

The US Treasury did sanction 17 individuals involved in the journalist’s killing in November, but Callamard, in her report, called those measures a “smokescreen diverting attention away from those actually responsible”.

“In view of the credible evidence into the responsibilities of the crown prince for his murder, such sanctions ought also to include the crown prince and his personal assets abroad, until and unless evidence is provided and corroborated that he carries no responsibilities for this execution,” she said.

But Momani said while Callamard’s report was significant, it was unlikely to “make much of a difference”. 

‘Turkey won’t let this go’

Despite the apparent hurdles, Ahmed al-Burai, a lecturer of political science at Istanbul Aydin University, said that “Turkey is not going to let this go without accountability.”

Commenting on the report, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan underlined its findings that the Saudis were “guilty”, had “knowledge” and took a “wrong” attitude towards Turkey.

“They will account for this and they will pay a price,” Erdogan said.

Ankara has for long not accepted Riyadh’s claim that the murder was a domestic affair, and al-Burai argued it would use Callamard’s branding of the killing as an international crime to mobilise the global community to demand accountability, as well as press Saudi Arabia to reveal where Khashoggi’s body was.

“Turkish officials don’t want this to be seen as a standoff between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. That is why Turkey cooperated fully with the UN rapporteur,” he said.

“They want those who are very close to Saudi Arabia, like Trump’s administration, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – who already have lots of arms deals between them and Saudi Arabia – to stand up and say Western democracies do not value arms deals and investments with Saudi Arabia over the human rights and journalist crimes.”

Turkey will want to mobilise as many countries as it can for “momentum”, he said.

“They’re not going to abandon the case.”