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Biden Is Letting Saudi Arabia Get Away With Murder, Again

Riyadh’s forces are killing defenseless Ethiopian migrants at its border, and Washington and its allies don’t seem to care.

Published in: Foreign Policy
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives U.S. President Joe Biden at AI Salman Palace upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives U.S. President Joe Biden at AI Salman Palace upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022.  © 2022 Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters

The United States and other Western allies have all but rubber-stamped Saudi Arabia’s repression at home and abroad. Repeated U.S. failures to hold Saudi Arabia to account for a litany of human rights violations has emboldened the Saudi government, allowing it to act with unbridled impunity as abuses grow ever more horrifying.

In late August, Human Rights Watch reported in gruesome detail how Saudi forces are killing hundreds of migrants, including women and children, on the remote, mountainous border with Yemen. Researchers documented Saudi border guards using explosive weapons against Ethiopian migrants and asylum-seekers attempting to cross into Saudi Arabia. The attacks are widespread and systematic.

Details in the evidence collected by Human Rights Watch are utterly devastating: “From 150, only seven people survived that day,” a survivor said. “There were remains of people everywhere, scattered everywhere.” A 17-year-old boy said border guards forced him and other survivors to rape two girls after the guards had executed another migrant who refused to rape another girl.

The violations detailed in this report are a dramatic escalation in both the number and manner of targeted killings. Arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment by Saudi forces were commonplace along this route, but never before have we seen the systematic killing of unarmed migrants, including women and children, on this scale.

The Saudi government has never faced meaningful consequences for prior abuses committed in plain sight and thoroughly documented. Indeed, U.S. authorities had been briefed on the killings of migrants at the Yemeni-Saudi border for more than a year.

At only 38, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is just a few short years into what may be a decadeslong reign and yet has already overseen one of the worst periods for human rights in the country’s modern history. Each year, Saudi Arabia’s abuses under his rule metastasize further as the U.S. government fails, again and again, to follow through on threats to hold him to account, all the while courting the kingdom to further Washington’s economic and security interests.

Human Rights Watch has not documented direct involvement of the crown prince or any other individual Saudi official in the killings of migrants on the border. But if proved to be part of an explicit state policy of murder, this would be a crime against humanity.

This absence of accountability for previous violations—such as the brutal murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials in their consulate in Istanbul in 2018; apparent war crimes committed during the disastrous war in Yemen, such as an October 2016 attack on a funeral ceremony that killed at least 100 people and wounded more than 500, including children; and mounting domestic repression—has emboldened the crown prince.

Despite pledging to make Saudi Arabia into a “pariah,” U.S. President Joe Biden failed to seek accountability for the crown prince’s role in the Khashoggi murder. The legal position (as set out by the U.S. State Department) that the crown prince cannot be sued while serving as the head of government, a role he has formally occupied since his appointment as prime minister in September 2022, further highlighted this failure to seek accountability despite a U.S. intelligence assessment, released in February 2021, that he approved Khashoggi’s murder.

In Yemen as well, Saudi leaders have wriggled their way out of accountability. As part of his role as Saudi defense minister between 2015-2022, the crown prince oversaw unlawful attacks, including apparent war crimes that have killed scores of civilians. The Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition has repeatedly bombed Yemeni civilians, and then skirted the international community’s efforts to hold them accountable.

Saudi Arabia, backed by the UAE, successfully led an aggressive lobbying campaign to end the mandate for the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, an international, impartial, and independent body established by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017 that reported on rights violations and abuses in Yemen.

The United States has failed to act as Saudi domestic abuses have become ever more mind-boggling. Last year, Saudi courts handed down a shocking 34-year sentence to Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student at a British university, for nothing more than mild criticism of the Saudi government on her Twitter account. But just in recent days, the Saudis upped the ante yet again by meting out a death sentence to Mohammed al-Ghamdi, the brother of a prominent Islamic scholar and government critic exiled in the U.K., for his tweets.

Strong, decisive, and immediate public action is needed to counter these mounting abuses, far more than the woefully inadequate statements of “concern” to which we have become accustomed.

At the very least, the United States should support a U.N.-backed independent mechanism to investigate possible Saudi crimes against humanity against migrants on the northern Yemen border.

The United States should also examine its own role in supporting segments of the Saudi armed forces that may have committed these and other crimes. For the past eight years, the U.S. Army’s Security Assistance Command has been training Saudi border guards in a program that concluded in July. And U.S. military personnel are embedded in significantly more roles throughout the Saudi security system than has been widely known. Those engagements should be a matter of public record and congressional oversight.

At one of the Saudi guard posts near the border with Yemen, Human Rights Watch identified a parked mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle that appeared to have a heavy machine gun mounted in a turret on its roof; equipment such as this could have been used in the crimes we documented against Ethiopians. The United States and other arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia should determine whether their armaments and equipment have been used by Saudi border forces in the commission of mass killings and other crimes.

The Ethiopian government stated that it would work with Saudi Arabia to investigate the killings, but that’s a hollow pledge coming from a government that was recently reported to have participated in ethnic cleansing and thus far has shown no intention of allowing accountability for that crime in its own ranks. There are also concerns over weaknesses and independence of the justice sector in Ethiopia, as well as the credibility and scope of investigations conducted so far.

The United States should under no circumstances support an initiative that allows Saudi Arabia to investigate itself. Support for an investigation conducted by the Saudis would be worse than no investigation at all; it would allow the Saudis to wipe their hands clean of responsibility yet again, as they did with Khashoggi and other abuses.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Saudi authorities weeks before the release of the report detailing violence against Ethiopian migrants, asking for comment. Researchers received no response. The Saudis only replied to questions from journalists, and even these responses dismissed the Human Rights Watch findings merely as “unfounded” and “untrue,” without any concrete evidence to substantiate their denials.

These flippant denials are insufficient: Washington and other governments that have provided support to Saudi Arabia need to demand answers and seek accountability. The United States and others are also duty-bound to investigate their complicity, hold themselves accountable, and stop not only their indifference to Saudi human rights violations, but also their own contributions to those abuses.

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