Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) will be traveling to Argentina today to attend the G20 Summit meeting in Buenos Aires. It boggles the mind of anyone possessing a moral compass to understand how MbS dares to show his face on the world stage after wreaking destruction on Yemen and ordering Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two months ago. But MbS, like his good friend Donald Trump, is blissfully free of any capacity for shame, guilt, or remorse. The continuing outrage and sorrow over Khashoggi’s death is eclipsed only by the despair and frustration of realizing that MbS might actually get away with this crime. Even the highly-polarized U.S. Congress agrees that MbS is a murderer and that Donald Trump is wrong to support him. European leaders are similarly repulsed by Trump’s support of MbS despite the genocide that the Saudis and Emiratis have visited on the people of Yemen, in addition to Khashoggi’s murder.
But perhaps this is just regular, ordinary life in the 21st century, a dark era of hyper-capitalism and neoliberalism, in which money and markets are the sole arbiters of every dimension of individuals’ and nations’ fates. The powerful in this world know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. Donald Trump’s son Eric recently opined that the alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia should not be scuttled over the death of just one journalist. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has supported Trump’s decision not to hold MbS accountable, arguing that the Saudis should “get a pass” on this crime, since the country is so vital to countering Iranian influence. Well, Netanyahu certainly knows a lot about the expedience of murder as a tool of statecraft. A recent book by Ronen Berman,Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, details the history of Israel’s use of extrajudicial killing as an instrument of defense and foreign policy. MbS is an amateur at this game compared to his new ally in Tel Aviv.
The blatant impunity enjoyed by political and financial leaders in our bleak new world drives so many of us to despair. The billionaire titans of Wall Street bankrupted millions of Americans a decade ago in the devastating market crash of 2008, and in return got a government bailout, not even a slap on the wrist. The U.S. president lies endlessly (there is a new joke in Washington DC: “How can you tell when Trump is lying? His lips are moving”), attempts to tinker with the U.S. Constitution, and denies his own government’s alarming report on the dangers of irreversible global climate change. Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land and mow down unarmed Gazan protestors without facing any legal or diplomatic repercussions, so why should it be surprising that the crimes of MbS can simply blend into the grim background of life in 2018?
But suddenly, a bright light appears on the horizon: on November 26th, Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced that it has filed a legal complaint against Muhammad bin Salman with Argentina’s federal prosecutor under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction for war crimes in Yemen. HRW’s complaint also highlights the crown prince’s possible complicity in serious allegations of torture of Saudi citizens, as well as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
According to HRW’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, “Argentine prosecutorial authorities should scrutinize Mohammed bin Salman’s role in possible war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition since 2015 in Yemen. The crown prince’s attendance at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires could make the Argentine courts an avenue of redress for victims of abuses unable to seek justice in Yemen or Saudi Arabia.”
Arab readers should be familiar with the principle of Universal Jurisdiction for humanitarian crimes, since a 2001 case filed in Brussels under Belgium’s Anti-Atrocity legislation brought charges against Israelis and Lebanese for the murders of over 1,000 Palestinians, Lebanese, and others in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, using the principle of universal jurisdiction to attempt prosecution of the massacre’s architects under international law exercised in the Belgian courts. That attempt ended in 2003, thanks to blunt interference by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who threatened to move NATO to Warsaw unless the Belgian Parliament ended the use of Belgium’s courts for universal jurisdiction prosecutions. [The author served as the North American Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila, the efforts of which can be found archived online here: http://indictsharon.nigelparry.net/]
Now, Argentina, a country sadly familiar with war crimes and torture during the 1970s and 1980s, has offered up its courts for international legal prosecution. HRW’s press release of November 26th states that “Argentina’s constitution recognizes universal jurisdiction for war crimes and torture. This means that judicial authorities in the country are empowered to investigate and prosecute such crimes no matter where they were committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or their victims. [These cases] are an increasingly important part of international efforts to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable, provide justice to victims who have nowhere else to turn, deter future crimes, and help ensure that countries do not become safe havens for human rights abusers….A decision by Argentine officials to move toward investigation would be a strong signal that even powerful officials like Mohammed bin Salman are not beyond the reach of the law….And Mohammed bin Salman should know that he may face a criminal probe if he ventures to Argentina.”
Can this effort to implement international humanitarian law in Argentina’s courts possibly bear the fruits of justice for Yemen’s dead, the victims of MbS’s torture, and the late Jamal Khashoggi? The outlook is not good, if we take recent attempts at universal jurisdiction prosecutions into consideration. Chilean General Augusto Pinochet and Ariel Sharon both escaped justice in universal jurisdiction prosecutions. International humanitarian law has taken quite a beating in the 21st century, beginning with the U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which clearly violated Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter. The establishment of the legal black hole that is the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, the U.S. use of torture, and the failures of the International Criminal Court to successfully prosecute war criminals does not augur well for an Argentinian prosecution of MbS. But, in our dark times, we can only hope that justice might be served in this case.