Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may find that his travel options are curtailed in the future, after Human Rights Watch pushed for an international investigation into his alleged war crimes.
The rights group says it has filed a submission with an Argentine federal judge, Ariel Lijo, which sets out allegations of crimes committed by Saudi forces during the war in Yemen. The crown prince – usually known by the acronym MBS – is also defense minister and is in charge of his country’s military forces and could be criminally liable for their actions, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tens of thousands of civilians are thought to have died in the Yemen conflict, which has pushed the country to the brink of famine. Saudi forces have regularly been accused of striking civilian targets. According to the Yemen Data Project, at least 32% of all air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in the war have been on non-military targets.
“Argentine prosecutorial authorities should scrutinize Mohammed bin Salman’s role in possible war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition since 2015 in Yemen,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
The choice of Argentina is significant as MBS is due to arrive in Buenos Aires in the coming days to attend the G20 Summit. His scheduled appearance has created a delicate diplomatic situation for other world leaders, most of whom will probably want to keep their distance from the crown prince in the wake of the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – a crime which the CIA said MBS ordered (Saudi officials deny that).
The submission by Human Rights Watch also refers to his possible complicity in allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of Saudi citizens, including Khashoggi.
“The crown prince’s attendance at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires could make the Argentine courts an avenue of redress for victims of abuses unable to seek justice in Yemen or Saudi Arabia,” said Roth.
The Pinochet precedent
The move recalls the situation that faced former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1998, when he was arrested on charges of human rights crimes by U.K. police acting on a warrant issued by a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón.
After a high-profile legal battle, Pinochet was eventually released by the British authorities on health grounds in 2000, but was later indicted by the Chilean authorities when he returned home. He died in 2006 before the legal proceedings against him had concluded.
Argentina’s constitution recognizes the principal of universal jurisdiction for war crimes and torture. As a result, its judicial authorities are able to investigate and prosecute such crimes regardless of where they were committed, who carried them out or who the victims were.
Following the submission by Human Rights Watch, it will be up to the Argentine authorities to decide if a crime may have been committed. If so, then the case will be investigated by a federal prosecutor or judge.
“MBS should expect more scrutiny of his rights record internationally and, when he visits rights-respecting states, the possibility that he will be investigated for connection to war crimes and torture,” said Michael Page, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
The filing in Argentina is unlikely to restrict the ability of MBS to travel around most parts of the Middle East. He is currently on a regional tour which has taken in the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The repressive nature of those countries mean there have been no protests against him, but there have been public demonstrations in Tunisia, which he is expected to visit before he heads on to Buenos Aires.
However, it will be in Western countries where MBS will have to tread most carefully. The situation adds another point of tension between Saudi Arabia and Western powers and will further undermine the Gulf country’s international reputation at a time when it badly needs to attract more international investment.
It comes as relations between the repressive Middle East monarchies and their allies in Europe and the Americas are under strain, not least because of the allegations of spying levelled at British PhD researcher Matthew Hedges by the UAE. He was released under a presidential pardon on November 26 and was due to return to the U.K.. His family continue to assert his innocence.