A United States intelligence report released last week adds further evidence to what many have long suspected: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, had approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet despite the report’s findings, the Biden administration has failed to live up to its campaign promise to hold MBS accountable.
Human Rights Watch and 41 other organizations are calling on President Joe Biden to impose sanctions available under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on officials at the highest levels of Saudi leadership, including MBS.
The Magnitsky Act and related powers allow US authorities to sanction foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption. In November 2018, US authorities used it to sanction 17 Saudi officials in connection with their alleged role in the Khashoggi murder. Last week, the US also announced visa restrictions on an additional 76 Saudis because they “threaten[ed] dissidents overseas, including [about] but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”
Saudi authorities have continued to systematically target dissidents and subject them to trials marred by lack of due process and credible torture allegations. Some laws-of-war violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen amount to war crimes. As crown prince and defense minister, MBS acts as the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia with near-total control over its security and military apparatus and economic and political affairs.
Last week’s intelligence report provides President Biden the opportunity to demonstrate his leadership by following through on his human rights pledges. In addition to powers granted under the Magnitsky Act, the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act would require US authorities to issue an entry ban on MBS given his direct involvement in “significant corruption” and “gross violation[s] of human rights.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and others have urged President Biden to remain “consistent” with US human rights policy and take bolder action against MBS. Several members of Congress have drafted bills that would impose sanctions on MBS and others.
President Biden should demonstrate that respect for human rights is central to his foreign policy. Imposing sanctions and travel bans on MBS and other Saudi officials should be the minimum response. The recent temporary freeze on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia should also be extended until authorities stop committing abuses in Yemen and hold officials who have committed or overseen war crimes to account.
Arwa Youssef is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a Human Rights Watch staff member.