As Joe Biden continues his four-day visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel, ARTICLE 19 urges the US president to put human rights at the center of his agenda. A mere seven months ago, President Biden called for a renewal of democracy globally based on promoting and protecting freedom of expression, rule of law, accountability and justice, yet the Saudi Arabia trip suggests that money will once again trump accountability.
In an opinion piece ahead of the visit, Joe Biden declared that his ‘views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda’. And yet, the international human rights community remains deeply sceptical.
US officials have confirmed that Biden will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) – who US intelligence reports accuse of ordering the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
The murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 shocked the world and attracted words of strong condemnation from the international community – and from Joe Biden himself.
Over the years Saudi Arabia, which ranked 153rd out of 161 countries in ARTICLE 19’s 2022 Global Expression Report, has become increasingly confident in its ability to commit crimes and silence dissent without consequences, even beyond its borders.
From the ongoing war crimes committed in Yemen to long-term jail sentences for human rights defenders to its extensive surveillance and kidnapping operations against people or groups who dare to criticise the regime, Saudi continues to be one of the world’s leading human rights abusers and should not be rewarded with a presidential visit.
The planned meeting with MBS will undermine the apparent progress from last year, when the Biden administration agreed to release the intelligence documents relating to the Khashoggi murder to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The meeting is a clear signal that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to worry about sanctions or international condemnation – trade deals take priority over accountability for human rights violations.
Commenting on Joe Biden’s visit, Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 said:
“President Biden has repeatedly promised that under his administration human rights will be at the center of US foreign policy. On the campaign trail in 2020, he vowed to make Saudi Arabia ‘a global pariah’ over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This visit makes a mockery of this promise.
“Time and time again the international community looks the other way as journalists are killed and human rights defenders are thrown into jails. If Biden intends to honor commitments to ‘holding true to fundamental American values’, he must prioritise freedoms and accountability when talking to Saudi Arabia, highlighting the Khashoggi case. Failure to do so will send a message to autocrats that they can continue to act with impunity.
“ARTICLE 19 urges the US president to not betray human rights during his visit. He owes this to Jamal and the victims not only of Saudi Arabia, but of regimes around the world.”
A trip overshadowed by the murder of journalists
The trip is also being overshadowed by another murder, that of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead in the West Bank on 11 May. Following an investigation into the murder, the US State Department announced that Israeli gunfire was ‘likely responsible’ for her death – though it stopped short of saying it was intentional, despite the fact that when she was killed she was wearing clothing that clearly marked her as being a member of the press.
Abu Akleh’s family wrote to the president ahead of his Middle East trip, expressing outrage over the US administration’s failure to take action and calling for justice. They also appealed to Biden to meet with the journalist’s family during his trip.
Human rights and journalists groups around the world have appealed for the international community to ensure Israeli Defence Forces be held accountable for the crime.
ARTICLE 19 and a group of civil society and media organisations called for an independent investigation and highlighted that Israel is not only among the countries failing to adequately protect journalists — it systematically targets them. In May 2021, Israeli forces bombed the media offices of the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera in the Gaza Strip. The same month, an Israeli airstrike killed Voice of Al-Aqsa reporter Yousef Abu Hussein in his home. In 2018, Palestinian journalists Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein were also killed while covering the Gaza border protests.
Quinn McKew continued:
“In Israel, Biden must speak out against impunity and demand that those responsible for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh are brought to justice. We’re calling on the president to make it clear to Israeli authorities that all countries have a duty to ensure crimes against journalists are investigated and perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.”
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Saudi Arabia ranked 153 out of 161 countries in the 2022 Global Expression Report – ARTICLE 19’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.
Israel ranked 56 and the United States ranked 30.