For a year the Saudi authorities have denied this until an interview just last week, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told a reporter that he took “responsibility."
“When a crime is committed against a Saudi citizen by officials, working for the Saudi government, as a leader I must take responsibility,” he told “60 Minutes.”
Indeed, state responsibility as defined under international human rights law is not a question of which state official ordered the assassination nor whether those who committed the crime acted on their own initiative. The state is responsible for acts committed by its officials under cover of their official status and using means and assets placed at their disposal by the state.
A “responsible” statesman would not have been complicit in 12 months of denial and disinformation about that responsibility. A “responsible” leader would not have tolerated 12 months of continued implementation of the very policies of intolerance and repression that led to Khashoggi’s murder.
Still, on the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, and three months after my report detailed why his killing must be understood to have been a state killing, we have this official admission. The crown prince also went on to say, “This was a mistake, and I must take all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”
Setting aside the fact that the killing of Khashoggi was no “mistake,” there are indeed many actions that the crown prince should take.
Here are just a few of the most essential: A public acknowledgment of full responsibility should be issued to the people of Saudi Arabia. A formal state apology must be given to Khashoggi’s family and to his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. His commitment must go beyond words alone: All those currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for the peaceful expression of their opinions and beliefs should be released immediately. The circumstances and institutions that enabled the execution of Khashoggi must be thoroughly and impartially assessed in a transparent fashion. The announced reforms to the Saudi security agencies — to their decision-making, training and code of ethics — should have begun, but how are we to know? A “responsible” leader would ensure methods for public confirmation are in place.
The crown prince’s admission raises another issue: the chain of command. Who are the “masterminds" behind the crime? In his interview, he insisted that he did not order the crime, pointing instead to the layers of officials that stand between him and those who did the killing. He seems to suggest that this protects him from individual liability. But that’s not how it works. Not under international law.
In fact, my investigation established credible evidence of a far closer relationship between those who performed the killing and the crown prince — far closer than he has admitted.
The evidence shows that the operation that killed Khashoggi involved state planning, resources and assets. In the two weeks that followed the killing, Saudi officials went further — taking steps apparently to destroy evidence of the killing — even as they were denying his death. This could not have taken place without the crown prince’s say-so.
Under international law, the crown prince’s criminal liability is not settled only as a question of whether he ordered the killing. His individual criminal liability is also engaged as a member of the state’s chain of command. Liability may be invoked if he disregarded information suggesting the likely future commission of the crime, or if he failed to act with diligence to prevent such a crime, or if he took steps to cover up the crime after its commission. Further, the operation against Khashoggi took place during an organized crackdown against dissent in Saudi Arabia, including through unlawful acts of torture and arbitrary detention. The crown prince presided over the repetition and escalation of those crimes too, taking no action to prevent those crimes. That, too, incurs criminal responsibility.
The liability of the crown prince concerns his acts both of omission and commission. And justice for those acts cannot be self-served. Bespoke justice, justice at his convenience according to his personal judgment? That is not justice. That is not taking responsibility.
Only a proper criminal investigation into the criminal liability of high-level officials in the chain of command behind the killing of Khashoggi will determine how far the crown prince’s personal responsibility goes. And only then he would have taken “all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”
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