How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
U.S. President Joe Biden is visiting Saudi Arabia, where, as part of a meeting with King Salman, he is expected to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, the man who ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden laid out the objectives for his trip to the Middle East, which includes a stop in Israel and a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in The Washington Post on Saturday. He described a mixture of hard-core national interests—countering Russian aggression and Chinese competition—with a dash of human rights aptly presented in the middle of the text.
The rhetorical gymnastics of Biden’s essay notwithstanding, his planned trip will not only undermine the pursuit of justice for Khashoggi; it will also reinforce the view that the United States only selectively stands up for human rights. Even as it seeks to unite the world in opposition to Russia’s act of aggression in Ukraine, Washington is giving favorable treatment to countries responsible for massive human rights violations. Although such inconsistency may seem like standard fare in foreign policy, its consequences for Biden’s Middle East trip are especially significant: just when the international order is under threat, Biden’s about-face on Saudi Arabia will undermine his administration’s goal of building a global consensus condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine and defending a rules-based order.
The crown prince’s responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi is a fact. Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and a Washington Post columnist, was killed and his body dismembered by a team of 15 Saudi operatives in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. As the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, I launched an inquiry into the murder in January 2019. After a year-long international investigation, I presented my findings to the UN Human Rights Council and concluded that his killing was incited or ordered by MBS and thus also a serious violation of international law. The U.S. government confirmed this finding. In a declassified report, published in February 2021, Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, found that “Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
The crown prince has complained that he should be presumed innocent until proven guilty for this murder. His argument is preposterous: The world would welcome a fair and impartial trial to assess his culpability, but Saudi Arabia has obstructed all attempts to hold one. In 2019, the kingdom conducted a sham trial, and this April, it engineered the transfer of a Turkish trial related to the murder back to Saudi Arabia so that the matter will be buried again. The kingdom has not even had the humanity to disclose the location of Khashoggi’s remains, information that could reduce the suffering of his family and friends.
Khashoggi’s murder is part of a pattern of human rights abuses by the Saudi government. Since MBS was elevated to crown prince, the Saudi government has allowed concerts and other modern recreation, but it has also become increasingly repressive. People are executed en masse on trumped-up charges. The new Family Code passed in March, codifies discrimination against women, including male guardianship over women, which requires that women have male guardian permission to marry, and once married, must obey their husband. At the same time, activists, political opponents, and ordinary citizens who express the mildest of criticisms are imprisoned or prohibited from leaving the country. Last month, Amnesty International reported that over 500,000 people in Jeddah may see their homes demolished and be forcefully displaced to satisfy Vision 2030, MBS’s ambitious plans to overhaul the Saudi economy in order to make it less dependent on oil revenue. This includes the development of 5.7 million square meters of land. In 2021, the U.S. State Department provided a similar litany of significant human rights violations, including forced disappearances, and harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad. This repression is likely to worsen when the crown prince becomes king and ruler of Saudi Arabia, as he is expected to do when his 86-year-old father, King Salman, dies. As Khalid al-Jabri, the exiled son of a former Saudi intelligence chief, has put it, “When he’s King Mohammed, Crown Prince MBS is going to be remembered as an angel.”
As horrific as Khashoggi’s killing was, its significance is bigger than the death of one man: the murder is emblematic of the increasing willingness of countries to reach beyond their borders to neutralize opponents. In a 2022 report on “transnational repression,” Freedom House documented that since 2014, 735 journalists, human rights defenders, and activists from 36 countries had been targeted in 84 host countries. Some were spied on, some beaten or kidnapped, and at least 13 were killed. Another example of this willingness to reach beyond borders is Belarus’s unlawful diversion of a European commercial airliner in May 2021 to capture Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist, who remains in prison today. Others are Russia’s repeated extraterritorial assassinations. Russian intelligence agents almost certainly murdered Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin in 2019. And in 2018, they nearly killed Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer who worked for British intelligence, and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom in 2018.
According to a UN Security Council resolution adopted in 1988, when such attacks result in murder, they are considered acts of aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. In short, these extraterritorial acts of violence are an affront to the principles of nonaggression and peace at the core of the UN Charter.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia signals that there is little reason for the crown prince and others like him to distance themselves from the club of countries who embrace this unlawful, extraterritorial behavior. And it signals to the rest of the world that Biden’s promise to support human rights is conditional and selective: those who have something of political or economic value to offer are given a pass.
This trip is hardly the first time the United States has failed to observe the rules of international order. Its own past actions have contradicted the principles of nonaggression and peace. Its invasion of Iraq, its war on terror, its campaign of drone attacks outside defined areas of armed conflict, and its selective use of sanctions have all undermined the prohibition on the use of force and, in certain instances, stretched the meaning of self-defense under the UN Charter far beyond any reasonable understanding of the term.
This selective approach to international law has allowed Russia to equate its behavior to that of the United States, and parts of the world have found this argument convincing. It has even provided an excuse for some countries to vote against or abstain from the resolutions in the UN General Assembly on Ukraine. Thirty-five countries abstained or voted no on a March 2 UN resolution to condemn the Russian invasion. On April 7, that number rose to 82 for a UN General Assembly vote on Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. The countries who chose not to kick Russia out of the Human Rights Council represent 70 percent of the world’s population.
There is growing evidence that Russia is managing to convince not just the leaders of countries in Africa and Asia but the publics there as well that its aggression against Ukraine is justified. An analysis of tweets done by The Economist shows that pro-Russian content is swaying users outside the West. While multiple reasons may account for Russia’s success on this front, the West’s double standards with respect to its commitment to human rights also play a large role, as I was told repeatedly by officials and members of civil society alike during a mission to Southern Africa in March 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic and now the Ukraine war have exacerbated that perception. Europe and the United States have hoarded COVID-19 vaccines and failed to mandate that corporations within their jurisdiction provide vaccines to low-income countries. Despite the economic devastation of the pandemic, wealthy nations have failed to relieve developing countries from a crushing debt burden. High-income countries have failed to produce the $100 billion in annual climate-related funding promised to developing nations at the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP16, in 2010, with Oxfam estimating up to a $75 billion shortfall. And now, food insecurity around the world is increasing, as critical food supplies in Ukraine and Russia are cut off: 36 countries import more than 50 percent of their wheat from either Russia or Ukraine. As one African diplomat told Politico about his Western counterparts, “What they don’t seem to appreciate is that to our ears they seem to be saying European lives are more important than African lives.”
Khashoggi’s murder is part of a pattern of human rights abuses by the Saudi government.
If Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia confirms that realpolitik has won out, can the human rights consequences of the visit be somewhat, if inadequately, mitigated? At the very least, Biden should not meet with MBS on his own and should not agree to any photo ops with the crown prince. Instead, he should use this trip to meet with Saudi human rights defenders currently facing travel bans and call for the lifting of these bans and an end to the many unlawful detentions. Biden should demand that the kingdom end its systematic crackdown on freedom of expression and association. He should announce a permanent end to the sale of arms that Saudi Arabia would use in Yemen.
These are bare minimums. Will they be sufficient to allow this U.S. president to lead the world away from the existential crises the world is confronting, including the one prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Clearly not. At a time of unprecedented danger and instability, the calculus behind this visit to a country responsible for massive human rights violations will further push the world toward the abyss.