The disappearance of a prominent Saudi journalist raises a dark question for anyone who dares criticize governments or speak out against those in power: Will the world have their back?
Dictators and autocrats have always sought to silence dissenters, even ones that flee abroad to escape their grasp. They seem to only get bolder in turning to their playbook of detention, threats and killings.
That may in part be because, despite decades of talk of human rights in international circles, violations get only muted reproaches.
In the United States, the Trump administration avoids strenuous criticism of human rights abuses by allies, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the Philippines, or leaders it seeks to cultivate ties with, like Russia, China and North Korea.
President Donald Trump’s denunciations of “globalism” and tough stance against the International Criminal Court also have signaled that Washington has little interest in international enforcement against violators of human rights. Western countries have turned inwards, buffeted by rising xenophobic forces — and autocrats have either benefited from the vacuum or received outright support.
So when Turkish officials said they believed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed last week after disappearing during a visit to his country’s consulate in Istanbul, there was good reason to wonder whether there would be serious repercussions.
So too when China detained the now former Interpol chief after capturing him midair — the latest Chinese figure to vanish only to appear in court, accused of corruption.
So too when Russia was accused of poisoning an ex-spy in Britain.
Often economic and diplomatic interests lead countries to overlook killings, even of their own citizens.
In one of the most chilling recent cases, an Italian postgraduate student, Giulio Regeni, was found dumped on the side of a road outside the Egyptian capital, Cairo, his body mutilated and his bones broken. Suspicion in Italy immediately fell on Egypt’s security forces, notorious for their use of torture. But nearly three years later, no one has been blamed, and while Italy says it continues to investigate, it has forged ahead with ties with Egypt, particularly with the development of a natural gas field off Egypt’s coast by Italy’s largest energy company, ENI.
Sara Kayyali, a researcher on Syria for Human Rights Watch, said Khashoggi’s disappearance “is not just sad, it is terrifying.”
“We are all taken aback by the lack of condemnation by any of our traditional allies for the acts that we are seeing happen, most recently with Jamal’s case. I think it is a very challenging time for all of us and our traditional allies are not around,” she said. “It looks like it is the age of impunity, but we won’t let it go.”
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