Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.
It has been a bad couple of months for the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. His government’s murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate — which the CIA concluded the prince ordered — has heightened attention to other aspects of his government’s brutality. That includes reports of torture of activists and perceived opponents at home, the bombing campaign in Yemen that has repeatedly struck civilians indiscriminately and disproportionately, and the enforcement of a blockade that has helped push millions of Yemeni civilians to the brink of starvation.
In an apparent effort to redeem his reputation, the crown prince, or MBS as he is known, has been touring friendly Arab states recently and is attending the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires this week. Suddenly, however, his visit to Argentina looks as though it may deepen his problems rather than advance his resurrection.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch filed a submission — a summary of our public reporting — formally requesting that Argentine prosecutors examine MBS’s role in alleged war crimes and torture. Having lived through its own “dirty war” and then brought many of those responsible to justice, Argentina has a history of addressing such grave crimes. The Argentine justice system should seize this opportunity against someone who may have so much blood on his hands.
In an ideal world, victims of atrocities would be able to seek justice closer to home. But MBS’s iron grip over his own country and Saudi Arabia’s repeated refusal to credibly investigate apparent war crimes in Yemen mean there is no chance of justice there.
It is precisely for such cases that the international legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” can come into play. It provides that certain crimes are such an affront to humanity that every state has an interest in bringing those responsible to justice, no matter where the crime was committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspect or their victims. War crimes and torture are among these crimes. As a U.S. court said in a landmark case against a Paraguayan official who had come to the United States, “the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humanis generis, an enemy of all mankind.”
Twenty years ago, the principle was famously invoked by the British House of Lords when it upheld the arrest in London of the visiting former dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet. Since then, a number of governments have created specialized war-crimes units of investigators and prosecutors to take up these cases. The U.S. Department of Justice has such a group. In France and Germany, prosecutors and investigators are hard at work on cases against senior members of the Syrian regime. An Argentine judge in 2016 used the principle to seek the extradition to Argentina of Spanish officials alleged to have committed torture during the Franco dictatorship, given the absence of any prosecutions in Spain.
The inquiry into MBS has now been assigned to an Argentine investigating prosecutor who on Wednesday reaffirmed Argentina’s duty to investigate these crimes and asked an investigative judge to request information from the Yemeni and Saudi governments about their own investigations. (He also sought information from the Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry about MBS’s diplomatic status.) If a formal probe is opened, an investigative judge will seek further evidence about MBS’s role.
Argentina’s reaffirmation of the duty to investigate these crimes sends a strong signal that even powerful officials such as MBS are not beyond the reach of the law. Abusive officials commit atrocities because they assume they can get away with them. Often they are right.
Initiating an investigation of the crown prince would send an important reminder that the reach of justice is long, that not everyone stands in awe of the impunity that brutal leaders build for themselves at home. That signal is important not only as a matter of respect for his current victims and their families. It is also essential for preventing more victims tomorrow.