Secretary-General António Guterres is now the focus of concerted demands for the United Nations to establish an independent international tribunal to investigate the brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
International action has been stymied amid changing accounts from the Saudis, uncertainty over which party can trigger an investigation and the reluctance of the Trump administration to accept more evidence that Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince, may have ordered the killing.
The calls for the UN to take urgent action are coming from high-level figures in the world body as well as from outside rights organizations and journalists. Guterres’s office said recently that he needed a request from a “UN legislative body” to establish a tribunal, but some experts disagree.
The Saudis, finally admitting that their nationals were involved in the murder — after which Khashoggi’s body was apparently dismembered and the pieces brought in containers to Saudi Arabia — have announced that 11 people have been charged in the killing. Five of them face capital punishment. If they are summarily executed, valuable witnesses will be lost.
Trump is expected to receive a report from the Central Intelligence Agency on Nov. 20, asserting that the prince was directly involved in ordering the killing, which the Saudi government has denied. The report does not mean the US will raise the issue of its close Saudi ally in the UN Security Council. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would release the report if Trump doesn’t.
Relatedly, the Council is embroiled in a new British-led draft resolution calling for an immediate truce in the crucial port of Hodeidah, Yemen, which has been bombarded by the Saudi-led coalition in the yearslong war there. No vote is scheduled yet in the Council on the document, but Yemen is verging toward famine, induced by the crippled port and the Houthis’ warmongering. Kuwait, an elected Council member and part of the Saudi coalition, is resisting a vote on the draft resolution.
Moreover, Trump has refused to implicate the Saudi prince, and the US would not fare well in a Council debate on the topic as it tries to cool the war in Yemen.
In 2005, President George W. Bush asked the Security Council for — and got — an international tribunal to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon.
Human-rights activists and the government of Turkey have not advocated involving the Security Council in the Saudi case. The Hariri tribunal dragged on for years. In March this year, trials of some of the accused were still happening in absentia.
From the start of the Khashoggi murder, however, Turkey has asked for an independent international tribunal outside the UN. Pakistan did the same in 2005, after the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister, by a suicide bomber as she rode in a motorcade through the city of Rawalpindi. That UN inquiry blamed Pakistani authorities for not providing adequate security for her and whitewashing evidence, but it did not conclude criminal culpability.
After those unsatisfactory experiences, human-rights groups and some UN officials have decided that the secretary-general alone, albeit risking a confrontation with Washington, should act promptly to start an independent investigation into the Khashoggi murder, without the political concessions from the UN, as Saudi Arabia has demanded on issues in the past.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, met with Guterres on Nov. 19, but the spokesman for Guterres said that no “formal” — written — request had been made, although a verbal request could have come up.
The Saudis have become one of the most difficult members of the UN, among the range of 193 large and small powers, particularly because of its generous financial donations. A former UN envoy for Yemen called these gifts the “taming” of the UN.
In 2016, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that he had succumbed to Saudi pressure over a report that blamed a bombing campaign by the country and its partners, including the United Arab Emirates, for the deaths and injuries of more than 1,000 children in the Yemen war. Ban removed the Saudi-led coalition from the report’s annex listing violators because, he said, extensive UN funding was at stake. (It is listed in a separate new annex for its efforts to stop bombing civilians, even as it continues to bomb children.)
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said on Oct. 30 that the death of Khashoggi must be investigated independently and impartially, and that “the bar must be set very high to ensure meaningful accountability and justice for such a shockingly brazen crime against a journalist and Government critic.”
Bachelet said that her office would assist in any useful way.
“Forensic examination, including an autopsy on the body of the victim is a crucial element in any investigation into a killing, and I urge the Saudi authorities to reveal the whereabouts of his body without further delay or prevarication,” she added.
Among human-rights advocates and many others who have been calling for swift action at the UN for weeks, there appears to be agreement that the Human Rights Council is not the place for a case of this magnitude and horror. The Council does not meet again until March. A special session is normally called only after mass atrocities.
Additionally, there is no assurance that the Human Rights Council could avoid entanglements in political disputes over the Khashoggi case, given that he was a prominent critic of the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia, which is a Council member, could apply intense pressure to other governments.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.