GENEVA (AN) — The European Union and eight other nations condemned Saudi Arabia in the U.N. Human Rights Council, an unprecedented move to demand its cooperation with a United Nations-led investigation into Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing.
The statement signed by 36 nations, including the entire 28-nation E.U. bloc, represented the first collective rebuke of Saudi Arabia since the council was established in 2006.
The nations condemned Saudi Arabia “in the strongest possible terms” over the murder of Khashoggi, a dissident and U.S. resident who was a Washington Post contributing columnist when he was killed inside the Saudi Consulate at Istanbul, Turkey last October.
"We are particularly concerned about the use of the counterterrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms,” said Harald Aspelund, Iceland’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, who read the text of the statement aloud. Iceland replaced the United States on the 47-nation council last year.
"Investigations into the killing must be independent and transparent. Those responsible must be held to account," he said. "We call on Saudi Arabia to take meaningful steps to ensure that all members of the public, including human rights defenders and journalists, can freely and fully exercise their rights to freedoms of expression, opinion and association, including online, without fear of reprisals."
Outside of the E.U. bloc, nations that signed onto the statement were Australia, Canada, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Morocco, Montenegro, New Zealand and Norway.
The statement also called on the Saudis to release 10 imprisoned women's rights activists who were “detained for exercising their fundamental freedoms.” Three of the women — Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef — were arrested last year pushing for the right for women to drive cars.
The kingdom issued its first driving licenses to women just a month after their arrests. U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet — who as a young woman was tortured in Chile by the dictatorial regime she opposed and went on to become a two-time Chilean president — called for the release of the 10 women, who were allegedly tortured.
"Today, allow me to voice my concern at the apparently arbitrary arrest and detention and alleged ill-treatment and torture of several women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia," said Bachelet, head of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR.
"The persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country's proclaimed new reforms," she said. "So we urge that these women be released."
Bachelet, who became the U.N.'s human rights chief last year, was a Chilean human rights activist in the early 1970s, the result of her family becoming political prisoners and the death of her father, an air force general, after he endured months of torture while in prison.
Her father opposed August Pinochet’s overthrow of President Salvador Allende and was imprisoned for treason. Bachelet and her mother were detained and tortured for weeks during Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Salma El Hosseiny, an advocate for Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights, said this was the first time that the council's member nations collectively condemned human rights violations inside Saudi Arabia, which has for decades silenced women who defended human rights.
"The Saudi authorities, as council members, now have an opportunity to engage constructively with the council and immediately release the defenders," she said in a statement. "States should follow up on the joint statement by presenting a resolution at the June session if inadequate progress has been made."
'He's gone full gangster'
Officials from the United States and Turkey condemned Khashoggi's killing as an outrageous plot to silence a well-known journalist and dissident. The murder touched off a global furor over the Saudi regime and threats to press freedoms.
Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate on October 2 and there has been no evidence his remains were ever found, according to details shared by Turkish officials.
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration and the Saudi government, however, have deflected scrutiny of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who threatened in 2017 to use “a bullet” to kill Khashoggi, according to his conversation with a top aide that U.S. intelligence intercepted.
Turkish officials complained that Saudi Arabia has been less than cooperative. Saudi Arabia has indicted 11 people in Khashoggi’s killing, including some from the prince’s entourage, and has been seeking the death penalty against five of them.
The kingdom, which initially denied Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, held at least two court hearings on the matter. The U.S. Congress is now fighting the White House over the Trump administration's failure to abide by laws requiring that it report information about the killing to the Senate and the crown prince's involvement. Senators were up in arms over it.
"And the crown prince is not making things easier. He's increasingly making it untenable. He's reckless. He's ruthless. He has a penchant for escalation, for taking high risks, confrontational as foreign policy approach, and I think increasingly willing to test the limits of what he can get away with with the United States," said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, at a Senate hearing this week.
"I believe, and all the evidence, I believe, strongly indicates he ordered or knew of efforts to murder Jamal Khashoggi and to do so in a third country in a diplomatic facility," Rubio said. "He's gone full gangster, and it's difficult to work with a guy like that, no matter how important the relationship is."
The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been founded on decades of security cooperation and business ties, primarily U.S. interests in Saudi oil. Even the challenges of the 1973 oil embargo and the 9/11 terror attacks — carried out by 15 Saudis and four others — did not end the strategic partnership.
The U.N. team investigating Khashoggi's death is led by Agnès Callamard, a special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions with OHCHR. She opened the investigation into Khashoggi’s killing after international organizations demanded a U.N.-led independent investigation into the murder.
The other team members are Helena Kennedy, a lawyer and baroness, Duarte Nuno Vieira, a professor of forensic medicine, and Paul Johnston, a homicide and major crimes investigator. After a week of investigating in Turkey, the team said preliminary evidence showed it was a “premeditated killing” by Saudi officials.
“Evidence collected during my mission to Turkey," Callamard said in a statement, "shows prime facie case that Mr. Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia."