The State Department on Wednesday characterized the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by government agents as a human rights abuse but avoided implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA concluded was likely to have ordered it.
In its annual human rights report of abuses in more than 200 countries and territories, the State Department noted that while Saudi Arabia’s investigation into Khashoggi’s killing is still underway, in other cases “the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity.”
The assessment was included in the State Department’s annual human rights report, which has been mandated by Congress since 1977. In introducing it, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out Iran, South Sudan and Nicaragua for condemnation.
“Then there’s China, which is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations,” he said.
Pompeo accused China of sending more than 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims to reeducation camps “designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities.” He said it has stepped up persecution of Christians, Tibetans and anyone who advocates views different from that of the government.
Pompeo said the report documents abuses by both adversaries and allies, in the hope that the attention can bring about change.
“By issuing today’s report, we deploy the truth — the truth about abuses occurring around the globe — as one of the most powerful weapons in America’s diplomatic arsenal,” he said.
The annual report is Pompeo’s first since becoming secretary of state last year.
“The policy of this Administration is to engage with other governments, regardless of their record, if doing so will further U.S. interests,” he wrote in the preface. “At the same time, we recognize that U.S. interests in the enduring stability, prosperity, and security of a world filled with strong, sovereign states will only be served if governments respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Some human rights groups expressed astonishment at Pompeo’s words.
“This statement signals to world leaders including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egypt’s president [Abdel Fatah al-Sissi] that the U.S. doesn’t care about human rights and will forgive or forget even the most atrocious human rights abuses,” said Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East at Amnesty International USA.
But Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor — and now a Democratic congressman from New Jersey — said that no administration refuses to talk to another country only because of human rights abuses.
“The question is how we engage, not whether we engage,” he said. “My problem with the administration is not what Pompeo said in the introduction. It’s what the president has repeatedly said publicly and privately to dictators around the world, namely that they don’t have to worry about the United States bothering them.”
Michael Kozak, who now heads the democracy, human rights and labor bureau, said that engagement does not signify approval.
“We’re saying we’re engaging with them despite their behavior sometimes and trying to use our engagement to make improvements in that,” he said.
The report’s section on Saudi Arabia cited examples of repression, including the reported torture of women’s rights activists and an investigation into a female journalist whose abaya was blown open by a gust of wind while she was on-air, revealing her street clothes.
The administration has struggled to explain why it treats the Saudi government so favorably but noted that there “were no reported cases of judicially administered amputation during the year.”
The report stated that Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, “was killed by government agents” at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. It said the Saudi government initially claimed he left the building unharmed “but changed its story as facts came to light.”
The crown prince is named only in passing in a separate section.
Kozak declined to say whether he had read the CIA assessment. He said that Mohammed was not mentioned because the Saudi investigation into the killing is active.
“We’re sort of in the middle of that movie, and hopefully as it plays out we’ll get a clearer set of facts as to who was and who was not responsible, and act accordingly,” he said.
“Where we have had strong factual information . . . we’ve already taken measures in terms of imposing visa restrictions and sanctions on some of the people that are prime suspects in the case. But that doesn’t mean there are not others, it just means the investigation and the facts haven’t taken us there yet.”
Rob Berschinski, vice president for policy at Human Rights First, said Pompeo and the State Department were practicing “obfuscation” over the crown prince’s complicity.
“The administration’s continued insistence that it is waiting on a Saudi-led investigation is laughable, given the complete absence of rule of law in that country,” he said.