09:37, October 10 35 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-10 09:37:06
Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance fits in to a growing trend we must fight

The disappearance, and possible murder, of Jamal Khashoggi, a high-profile critic of the Saudi regime, is the latest, disturbing addition to the rising toll of state-directed, extra-territorial kidnappings, abductions and killings around the world. So here’s the question: why do more and more governments think they can get away with murder, figuratively if not literally?

Lack of respect for international law is one quick answer. Leaders who wax passionate about defending their national borders appear only too ready to violate those of others. Rarely have the basic rules governing relations between states been so wilfully, blatantly and frequently disregarded. It’s a problem that should concern everybody – because everybody is at risk.

It’s tempting to blame the US, a country that once led by example but has come to epitomise the problem. In January 1986, worried about American hostages in Lebanon, Ronald Reagan signed a top-secret covert action directive. The presidential “finding” authorised the CIA to kidnap suspected terrorists anywhere, any place. Reagan’s “snatch and grab” operations inaugurated the modern-day practice of state abduction, leading ineluctably to extraordinary rendition. They set a fateful precedent.

George W Bush massively expanded rendition after the 2001 terror attacks, creating secret detention centres in third countries and pressurising allies (such as the UK) to help. Although the UN classifies one country’s abduction of another country’s citizens as a crime against humanity – as in the case of North Korea and Japan – the US and its accomplices have in practice faced no substantive sanction or penalty to date. No politician has gone to jail. No black site torturer has had to answer for his (or her) crimes.

This grim lesson in impunity has been absorbed and digested by governments everywhere, especially those whose legitimacy is in question or longevity in doubt. Saudi Arabia fits both categories. The Khashoggi disappearance, almost certainly ordered and planned in Riyadh, is the very sort of illegal action that has been normalised, though plainly not justified or excused, by very recent American practice from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Cuba.

It’s not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first offence. Last December Saad Hariri, the elected prime minister of Lebanon, was effectively kidnapped and, after being roughed up a little, instructed to read out a pre-written resignation speech on Saudi television. Hariri was later restored to office. But the episode was a reminder of the authoritarian Saudi regime’s long, dark history of abductions abroad.

One of the most notorious cases involved a dissenting royal family member, Prince Sultan bin Turki, who was seized in Geneva in 2003. It was claimed at the time that he was drugged and forcibly bundled on to a plane to Riyadh. Was this Khashoggi’s fate? In 2016, Prince Sultan was reportedly kidnapped again, along with members of his entourage. The incident was described by analyst Hugh Miles as part of a “systematic state-run Saudi programme to kidnap defectors and dissidents”.

When it comes to kidnappings and abductions, Saudi Arabia is minor-league compared to big players such as China and Russia. Xi Jinping’s regime in Beijing stands accused of a “global kidnapping campaign”, targeting Chinese nationals living abroad whom it deems political dissidents or security threats. Many such cases, such as the persecution of Taiwan citizens in mainland China, go largely unreported.

In contrast, the 2017 seizure in his Hong Kong hotel of Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese-Canadian billionaire, gained worldwide publicity. The victim was reportedly sedated, placed in a wheelchair with a blanket over his head, and rolled into captivity on the far side of Victoria Harbour. He later resurfaced, denying he had been kidnapped, though it was assumed he spoke under duress. The parallel saga of five Hong Kong booksellers who were also snatched is still incomplete.

“Beijing’s policy of forcibly repatriating people it considers Chinese nationals – some of whom are in fact citizens of other countries – appears to be accelerating,” wrote Carnegie fellow Zach Dorfman in Foreign Policy magazine. “Powerful businessmen, ex-Chinese Communist party officials, dissidents, and activists have all been targeted as part of what western intelligence officials say appears to be a large-scale campaign.”

Russia’s overseas conspiracies against exiled opponents have a habit of turning lethal. The attempted poisoning in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian intelligence agent who Vladimir Putin last week denounced as a “scumbag” and “traitor”, recalled the assassination in London of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. But these scandals are dwarfed, in scale, by Russian actions in occupied Crimea, where there have been dozens of unexplained, unnerving disappearances since 2014.

The growing willingness of states to launch extra-territorial operations is not simply a matter of unscrupulous leaders following the US’s example. It reflects a more general loss of respect for international law and for the much-battered, much-lamented “global rules-based order”. It is one, dire manifestation of the many negative consequences of the ongoing collapse of the postwar, collective UN security system, to which irresponsible populist-nationalists such as Donald Trump are actively contributing.

Khashoggi’s disappearance shows what can happen when the primacy of the law breaks down, and far from fighting to restore it, democratically elected leaders and governments connive in, or turn a blind eye to, the dictators and despots who are responsible. Similarly blatant outrages are occurring every day, and every day go unpunished. Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, needs to wake up – and stand up. Amid the tortured screams of the disappeared, having a quiet word is not enough.

Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian

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