Antonio Panzeri is chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights at the European Parliament.
“If no proper response is given to the murder of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, if all of this remains without clarity, this will be a terrible stain on the fight for human rights."
This was the warning issued by Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, in February at a meeting of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, of which I am the chair. She initially raised the alarm about Khashoggi’s disappearance on Oct. 2, after waiting for hours outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul while he was brutally murdered within the consulate walls.
But as she told us, her presence at the European Parliament was not just about playing the part of the journalist’s fiancee. Rather, it was about highlighting the importance of respect for human rights all over the world. Khashoggi’s heinous murder shines a light on how these rights have been brutally trampled on under the Saudi regime.
As Cengiz’s broken yet determined voice reveals, the actions of the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are exposed for what they are. For months, the crown price has been on a tour of world capitals to showcase the alleged transformation of his country into an open and tolerant society. He wants to portray Saudi Arabia as being at the forefront of progress in the Middle East. In reality, in terms of human and civil rights, the regime is following a path that leads in a completely different direction.
The regime, despite small concessions, has continued to behave in an authoritarian and repressive manner. Last June, it seemed to be making progress by abolishing the ban on women driving. But it also arrested activists who for years fought to obtain this right. Moreover, the opportunity to get behind the wheel has not changed the everyday reality faced by Saudi women: The guardianship system persists, preventing them from independently carrying out the simplest of tasks, such as opening a bank account or traveling. Everything must be done with the permission of a male relative.
With this in mind, the European Parliament passed a resolution in May encouraging Saudi Arabia to release human rights activists unjustly imprisoned, adopt legislation to define violence against women and end the guardianship system.
This picture contradicts the image depicted by the crown prince on his visits to world and business leaders. For him, business is key: He wants to implement his Vision 2030, which would reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on its oil revenue. The need to forge relationships with international powers explains the crown prince’s occasional concessions. Fortunately, there are still some leaders who see through the smokescreen and have some qualms about trading with a dictator.
Unfortunately, even some member states of the European Union — including mine, Italy — forget to take these concerns as seriously as they should. In fact, several European countries not only have commercial relations with Saudi Arabia but also sell arms to the country. The weapons arrive in the Arabian Peninsula and often go on to wreak havoc in the terrible war that is pulverizing Yemen. As a local activist told us at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in the European Parliament, though many Yemenis have never been to Europe, they know the countries thanks to what remains of the exported weapons. These remain embedded in their land, beside the rubble of their houses.
The European Parliament has repeatedly raised the issue, both with a question to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in January 2018, and with its most recent resolution, which was passed this month when the European Parliament reiterated its call to the European Council to impose an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia at the European Union level.
The European Union must not remain inactive. The situation in Saudi Arabia cannot be relegated for the umpteenth time as an unfortunate matter occurring far away. The European Parliament calls for a delegation from the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality to be sent to Saudi Arabia to visit the detained women and hold meetings with the Saudi authorities where appropriate.
As Hatice Cengiz reminds us, every journalist who is harassed, every woman who is deprived of liberties and every jailed activist represents a violation of everyone’s rights. For this reason, as chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, but above all as a European citizen, I will continue to work to ensure that the truth about what happened to Khashoggi emerges. The Saudi leadership cannot get away with so little action.