(Buenos Aires) – The Argentine judiciary on November 28, 2018, took steps toward a formal investigation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s possible responsibility for war crimes in Yemen and alleged torture of Saudi citizens, Human Rights Watch said today. Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Buenos Aires for the G20 Summit on November 28.
Ramiro González, the federal prosecutor, formally asked Judge Ariel Lijo, an investigating federal judge assigned through a lottery, to examine the Human Rights Watch November 26 submission to request information from the Saudi and Yemeni governments about whether they are investigating the allegations. He also asked for the Foreign Ministry to provide information about the crown prince’s diplomatic status.
Following the prosecutor’s decision, Judge Lijo sent information requests to the Turkish and Yemeni governments and the International Criminal Court (ICC) inquiring about whether they are investigating the allegations. He also sent a request to the Argentine Foreign Ministry on the question of the crown prince's immunity and diplomatic status. Neither Saudi Arabia or Yemen are members of the ICC.
“The Argentine judiciary has sent a clear message that even powerful officials like Mohammed bin Salman are not above the law and will be scrutinized if implicated in grave international crimes,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “A cloud of suspicion will loom over the crown prince as he tries to rebuild his shattered reputation at the G20, and world leaders would do well to think twice before posing for pictures next to someone who may come under investigation for war crimes and torture.”
The Human Rights Watch submission described violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in Yemen, for which Mohammed bin Salman may face criminal liability as Saudi Arabia’s defense minister. The submission also highlighted his possible complicity in alleged torture and other ill-treatment of Saudi citizens, including the murder and alleged torture of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The prosecutor’s written decision outlines states’ obligations to investigate alleged war crimes and torture and constitutes a ringing endorsement of the principle of universal jurisdiction, Human Rights Watch said. Under this principle, judicial authorities in the country are empowered to investigate and prosecute international crimes no matter where they were committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or their victims.
Universal jurisdiction 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.
The inquiry to Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the crown prince’s diplomatic status in Argentina is intended to help determine if Argentina’s Supreme Court should directly examine the case. The Argentine Constitution provides that, in certain kinds of cases involving foreign officials, the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction.
If the judiciary decides to open a formal investigation, the investigating federal judge would then gather further evidence to establish Mohammed bin Salman’s role in international crimes
The Argentine Foreign Ministry has stated that Mohammed bin Salman has immunity to attend the G20 Summit because he is an official diplomatic envoy under the 1969 Convention on Special Missions, to which Argentina is a party, according to media reports. Under the convention, “[t]he receiving State may, at any time and without having to explain its decision, notify the sending State that any representative of the sending State in the special mission … is persona non grata.” The sending state would need to either “recall the person concerned or terminate his functions with the mission,” in which case he would lose his immunity.
Existing immunities should not stop the Argentine judiciary from investigating the case, Human Rights Watch said. If an inquiry into the allegations of war crimes or torture is opened, the status of Mohammed bin Salman’s immunity could potentially be challenged as it would raise important legal questions regarding the extent of immunity for grave international crimes.
“Argentine judicial authorities should move quickly, within the boundaries of Argentine and international law, and demonstrate that they are committed to accountability for the most serious crimes,” Roth said.