Khashoggi prompts Trump to reconsider human rights in foreign policy

Khashoggi prompts Trump to reconsider human rights in foreign policy
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The suspected killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi officials in their consulate in Istanbul has riveted the news media. It has also fueled speculation and condemnation from governments and leaders worldwide, and produced a dramatic showdown between Saudi Arabia and its allies around the globe.

The Khashoggi case, and in particular the Trump administration’s initial reaction to it, has also have produced something else: a flashpoint of the U.S. addressing Saudi Arabia’s treatment of journalists that has catapulted human rights concerns into the forefront of U.S.-Saudi relations.

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The Trump administration’s high-level condemnation is unprecedented for two reasons. First, Saudi Arabia is an important and strategic Middle East ally. As such, the Trump administration and its predecessors historically have been relatively silent on the kingdom‘s human rights record. Washington has typically issued only the meekest of statements when the country beheads human rights activists, hangs LGBT citizens, or stones women.

Second, Trump’s initial threats to “severely punish” Saudi Arabia, in this case, are unexpected. The administration has not prioritized human rights concerns in U.S. foreign engagements.

While not referring to “human rights” per se, condemning the killing of a foreign journalist is tantamount to the strongest human rights foreign policy the U.S. government has exhibited toward Saudi Arabia in decades.

A look at Saudi practices, as well as the history of U.S.-Saudi relations, underscores the exceptional nature of the Trump administration’s reaction to the Khashoggi matter.

Arresting or killing a member of its journalist corps is not a new practice for the kingdom. In 2016, the Guardian reported that the number of beheadings reached the highest level in two decades. This is a country where people are put to death for “apostasy, sorcery, and adultery.” In addition, women charged with “witchcraft” are stoned to death or beheaded.

According to the U.S. government’s Human Rights Report in 2017, the most significant Saudi human rights abuses included:

  • unlawful killings
  • torture
  • arbitrary arrest and detention (including of lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists)
  • the imprisonment of political prisoners
  • arbitrary interference with privacy
  • restrictions on freedom of expression (including on the internet, and criminalization of libel)
  • restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion

Although finally allowing Saudi women to drive received much international press attention, the kingdom remains a dangerous place for women, LGBT people, bloggers and labor rights activists. Quite simply, anyone who strays from the status quo, or questions any power structure in the kingdom, is liable to be repressed. 

In the face of this situation, the kingdom has largely received a free pass in diplomatic engagements for how it treats its own people. Saudi Arabia was the first country that Trump visited after his inauguration.

Both Bush administrations maintained a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAs Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural Trump's take on midterms: ‘Epic' win in Senate, ‘better than other sitting Presidents’ in House NASA's carpool to Space Station is back on as Russian rocket Soyuz quickly returns to flight MORE also continued a close alliance with the kingdom. In 2015, upon the death of King Abdullah, Obama praised his "enduring contribution to the search for peace" in the Middle East. Then-Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKerry: ‘People are going to die' due to Trump's withdrawal from Paris climate deal Kerry tears into Trump for skipping visit to military cemetery: ‘Truculent child president’ Democrats huddle for 2020 ‘friend-raisers’ MORE called him a "man of wisdom and vision."

The United States is far from alone in working with Saudi Arabia despite its terrible human rights record. Historically, Western nations and the United States have turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses while nations such as Iran are roundly condemned for similar actions and policies against journalists and women.

Jeopardizing the entire strategic Saudi-U.S. relationship based upon the fate of one journalist would certainly set the Trump administration apart from its predecessors. And if Trump follows his rhetoric with action, he would become one of the strongest defenders of international press freedoms. This would be an ironic distinction many American journalists — who have been accused of being “enemies of the people” by the President — would certainly find hard to accept.

Has the Trump administration’s early reaction and warning to Saudi Arabia represented non-committal rhetoric, or does it signal a policy shift — one that would help restore the perception and reputation of the United States as a staunch defender of human rights in the international arena?

While it remains to be seen whether the administration’s rhetoric will be matched with actions, Trump’s statements are a jolt to international standards and diplomatic norms regarding bilateral relations and human rights between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Elise Carlson-Rainer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and doctoral program faculty member American Public University’s School of Security and Global Studies. Carlson-Rainer is a former U.S. diplomat and worked in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She served as senior editor for numerous State Department Human Rights Reports from 2005 to 2011 , including the country report for Saudi Arabia.