The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi prompted many to ask how Saudi Arabia — a staunch U.S. ally — could think it could get away with such a brutal act. Others have marveled at the audacity of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in purportedly ordering such a hit while courting members of the political and corporate elite around the world.
Yet we need not be surprised when the actions of the Saudi kingdom are straight out of the playbook of human rights abusing regimes across the globe.
Iran carried out a global assassination campaign across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. While European pressure contributed to a pause in the program for more than a decade, there are signs that it is coming out of dormancy, most recently with accusations of an assassination plot in Denmark against a separatist leader from Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority. The killing of opposition leaders abroad was directly connected to the Iranian regime’s brutal and systematic executions of thousands of dissidents at home.
Khashoggi’s murder is also in line with Saudi treatment of anyone who criticizes the regime’s practices or is perceived as doing so. Saudi Arabia executes dozens of its own citizens a year, often by beheading.
The way a state treats its people within its own borders is always a matter of international concern. The conventional wisdom in some circles is that the human rights practices of a country are its internal affairs and that global citizens, no matter how well-intentioned, have no standing upon which to criticize those practices. While some efforts have been made to chip away at this thinking, it continues to inform state-to-state relations and serves as a major obstacle to those who believe that abuse of state power can be challenged by a global social movement and international laws.
Fortunately, support for the idea of our collective responsibility beyond borders has ample precedent. Amnesty International was founded in the 1960s on the idea that individuals could directly appeal to release prisoners of conscience anywhere in the world. And the idea that the international community has the ability and the duty to challenge abuses, no matter where they occur, formed the basis of the establishment of International Criminal Court. It also informs the functioning of U.N. human rights mechanisms that monitor and report on abuses worldwide, pursuant to thematic and country-specific mandates.
Unfortunately, the strength of this support is often plagued by a lack of consistency and double standards from states. While the United States has been quick to decry the human rights abuses of the Iranian regime in recent months, it has been noticeably muted in statements on the Khashoggi murder. This compromises the weight of America’s very legitimate criticisms of Iran. In contrast, the European Union, which has been far more vocal in its recent criticism of Saudi Arabia, is being lambasted for remaining largely silent regarding rights abuses by Iran so as not to negatively impact its business dealings with the Islamic republic.
Such political expediencies prompt other states to claim that valid condemnations of human rights abuses are somehow illegitimate — such as what happened recently with the vote on a U.N. resolution dealing with a trade embargo on Cuba, in which U.S. amendments concerning human rights were dismissed as out of place by the E.U. and others. If human rights concerns were always part of the fabric of these debates as a matter of principle, and if states consistently condemned the abuses of all human rights violators – including their allies – the argument for exclusion would have no merit.
But ordinary citizens must seize the opportunity to call out governments when they are being inconsistent and demand human rights reforms, regardless of politics. While governments may wish to retain the old power model of top-down control, new models that thrive on participatory, decentralized structures invite the input of an online global community. That community, whose members include digital natives who increasingly count a friend in another country in their online network, sees itself as a stakeholder in global causes ranging from bringing the Turkish government to task for the Armenian genocide to defending free speech in Zimbabwe. That power and connection thrives online, irrespective of state lines.
That external support is vital to the quest for human rights in many countries. In our native Iran, this is important because the government has systematically dismantled civil society for four decades now. Those who do manifest dissent are imprisoned, exiled or killed. Without an outside network of committed lawyers, advocates and activists engaging in human rights reporting, devising technology solutions and creating digital platforms to organize on human rights issues, operating within this closed society and pushing for progress would be far more challenging.
Just as human rights are universal, attempts to protect those rights should also be seen as universal. Whether it’s Nicaragua, North Korea, Eritrea or beyond, caring about human rights and challenging injustice beyond our borders is not interventionism, it’s the duty of all supporters of freedom and democracy.