Irina Tsukerman

The Khashoggi Affair Pits Vigorous Human Rights Defense Against Idealism

This is probably one of the most difficult posts I have had to write, as someone who has dedicated a significant portion of my recent years to human rights defense work.

I have been on a parting course from many of my colleagues recently, but the handling of the Khashoggi death (I hesitate to call it “murder” because the intent in  his killing has not yet been demonstrated) has further exposed the vast differences in thinking that have largely put me outside the human rights milieu and into the limbo of human rights and national security activism.

Having moved away from supporting enormous NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, due in part to corruption, misallocation of funding, and various political biases, I had, for a time migrated closer towards the classical liberal/libertarian efforts such as The Oslo Forum, which seeks to empower individual human rights activists and defenders, and to focus on exposing reprehensible regimes. I respected these more critical groups for giving a platform and adequate media spotlight to the courageous dissidents who risk their lives and freedom to expose wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, no organization or effort is immune from criticism. Some of the frequent problems I have observed over the course of my involvement with human rights work includes poor vetting processes, ignorance about relevant internal issues and situations, moral relativism towards countries with varying degrees of openness and repression, and a one-size-fits-all approach that does not really address issues unique to a particular country or a community. At the end of the day, even the most vigorous defense of human rights in the West becomes more about the media value for internal consumption and back patting than about freeing a particular prisoner or addressing a specific issue within the repressive regime.  The reasons for that vary. With cases of extreme repression and closed societies, such as North Korea, few people outside relevant communities are familiar enough with internal situations to be of any direct assistance besides helping smuggle pro-Western information inside. Furthermore, most well meaning people outside a few organizations are not familiar with legislative process and frequently do not partake in recommendations related to human rights measures that would either pressure the regime or give additional opportunities to the civilians.

In less extreme cases, tunnel vision of human rights activism may be colored by limited skills and exposure, and the fact that Western human rights defenders frequently deal with other activists, rather than a broader and more representative swath of the society, whereas their counterparts in those countries, have focused on Western ideals that provide a welcome foil to their own experiences, without necessarily taking part the contradictory and somewhat chaotic nature of free societies. The result is a mishmash of idealistic aspirations, which often ignore the necessity of taking the larger context and how these activities affect regular people in real time into account on all sides. My biggest problem with the human rights defense in its current form is the inability to understand that even the most laudable of values should be introduced in a way that works in a particular time and place. Everyone is entitled to universal protection of basic rights – but the paths to reaching that basic defense may vary according to each society.

Everyone should take a moment to re-reade Jeane Kirkpatrick’s Commentary classic. This hearkens back to my point about moral relativism among human rights defenders of today. They seem incapable of distinguishing between societies seeking to improve, however imperfectly, and societies that are stagnant or going backwards. Furthermore, when human rights defenders ignore other relevant issues – such as the economy and other basic needs of the society as a whole, security concerns and their relationship to the internal human rights situation, or the geopolitical context – they come across as largely irrelevant and not in line with reality to the people whom they seek to influence, such as Western politicians, corporations engaged in those countries, or average viewers, whose support and engagement they seek.

If one is to provide vigorous defense to human rights, one cannot separate that issue from all other concerns and just focus on that one issue, as if there are no other priorities either to the other citizens of that country or to the outside world. Criticizing one’s ally will inevitably take a different form from attacking an adversary – not because everyone  in the West is a hypocrite willing to overlook human rights abuses for the sake of narrow goals such as mercenary concerns (though that certainly happens), but because there are wider contexts to the relationship with the ally, that have to be taken into consideration. One does not speak to one’s best friend about their shortcomings the same way one would have that conversation with a passing acquaintance, for instance. Furthermore, past experiences in specific contexts have created particular sorts of biases among entrenched human rights defenders, making them less open to innovative ways of tackling problems, and ultimately less open towards finding a solution rather than being forevermore invested in the process for its own sake.

Problem solving suffers when a human rights defender is more invested in a “vision” or a favorite paradigm than in finding an effective way of addressing a practical concern. The mutual back patting and drum beating at times hurts otherwise genuinely well intentioned efforts at achieving progress. At some point, activists seeking change should have humility enough to step back if they see that genuine efforts are made by the governments to address the issue. At times, it is important for those governments to be able to take credit for whatever positive progress is made. Yet many human rights activists, both inside and outside the society do not know when to stop. Once their dream is fulfilled, they feel they must surely continue otherwise their purpose will cease. They are then never satisfied and must continuously seek attention and get the credit. The danger is that such behavior will eventually backfire and may even affect the reform process negatively.

That has been particularly true with Middle Eastern societies where frequently the ability to take credit for something positive and not being excessively shamed or pressured in public is a central cultural aspect. Failure to take these issues into consideration may explain the slow progress observable in some of these societies, particularly when their leaders feel unappreciated by the West, or even their own citizens. How then, to continue pressing for additional change, without settling for pro forma reforms?  I suspect that an emerging models in societies where there is a movement towards modernity and liberalization is for internal activists and dissidents to be given opportunity to work closely with the governments on incremental reform, while friendly Western governments, heads of NGOs, and concerned investors or business partners maintain an open and honest discussion – without bringing every concern into public forum to be viewed as an attack rather than an engagement. Transparency of these processes is often a problem;; it will take time for many repressive societies to learn the balance of steady incremental changes and security for their leadership and preferred model of governance.  The West should be open to providing help and support but in a way that is likely to be accepted.

Most of  my views on this matter, however, have been decided at odds with most of the “reformers” and human rights activists I have seen, who feel a certain sense of entitlement and superiority towards other societies. I do not know that being fortunate enough to have the kind of values one is satisfied with should translate into a sort of arrogant preaching and finger-wagging that makes other societies reluctant to listen, much less implement any of the suggestions by such activists.  This has been on my mind with regards to Canada’s engagement of Saudi Arabia over the Raif Badawi case and the women’s rights activists.  I found the public moral preening over an understandably concerning issue problematic and unhelpful especially once the particular members of the Saudi government made clear that certain approaches do not work. To me, that does not necessarily mean that I should just give up and walk way or continue doing business as usual.  But it also does not mean that I should press on in a manner that is clearly counterproductive. There can be other paths that include exercising leverage to produce needed results in subtle ways that are wise, though not necessarily flashy.

These concerns for me have culminated in the abhorrent torrent of virtue signaling which surrounds the investigation of the Jamal Khashoggi death in the Saudi consulate and Turkey. I do not think there is left even a single person without an opinion about this matter, though the confirmed information on this investigation has been practically non-existent. The human rights activists came out in droves to condemn Saudi Arabia in the strongest possible terms. A few have been consistent and likewise criticized Turkey and its abhorrent human rights records; most, however, quickly bought into the most convenient and seemingly obvious narrative, refusing to consider other possibilities, though given that Khashoggi was involved in intelligence, other possibilities are always likely. Human rights defenders adopted the extreme position of singling out only the country presumably involved in one aspect of the situation for public derision; other suspect states taking advantage of the situation are being ignored. In this case, idealism does not yield justice, in the sense of holding wrongdoers accountable for wrongdoing.

Rather, it facilitates obfuscation by Saudi Arabia’s adversaries seeking easy PR victories.  The gloating has taken on absurd forms which include deriding the various reforms (many quite significant and yet nearly completely unpublicized) which have taken place inside the formerly closed society in a very brief period of time, as if that will somehow encourage the government to do more and faster. Others have taken to attacking young progressive-minded Saudis on social media, as if they are responsible for every decision made by their government or actors other than themselves. If that the human right defender way of “helping” reform a society that is only beginning to open up to Western values, it is little wonder that the progress is painfully slow and will likely continue to be riddled with setbacks and challenges. Idealizing Khashoggi and demonizing the Saudi government has done nothing for actual peaceful Saudi dissidents, nor for regular people seeking improvement in their lives.  Most people in Saudi Arabia likely hardly know who Khashoggi is or was, and are vastly more concerned about prospects for employment than about how exactly Khashoggi, who preached values contrary to the course Saudi Arabia has taken, met his end, and at whose order.

If the Western business seek to reform Saudi Arabia by abandoning prospects for investment, they will not punish the wealthy members of the ruling family, but rather the regular population that was looking to benefit from these business and gain employment, which likely would have helped the society open more. The human rights defenders and politicians seeking sanctions and severe punishments for the country ignore the fact of clear good intentions in the general direction – albeit with expected speed bumps along the way – and the effect a more measured approach could have on inspiring more open minded thinking inside the country. These efforts are more likely to be portrayed as attacks on Saudi sovereignty and nationalism, and much of the country will only coalesce around its government and be disgusted by Western interference and virtue signaling.

Moreover, the hypocrisy of this approach is self evident. Many of the finger waggers show not even an iota of the same outrage towards Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Russia, or China, who all have been going backwards in their human rights record, and certainly  not making a public attempt at consistent reforms, however minor.  Same people who were all too happy to flatter Mohammed bin Salman when he was in a better place visiting the United States and Europe, have quickly jumped ship the moment there was even a possibility of a challenge. Have these people – politicians, NGO heads, corporate heads, journalists, and innumerable consultants – taken the time to understand the mentality and culture of the society they are dealing with?

What help have they, at any point, offered to the presumptive head of state who clearly wanted to be known as a reformer – whether with the reforms, with governance, or any other aspect of leadership that would certainly have its challenges for someone young and inexperiencd? The answer is: none. Indeed, many of the media and corporate actors, not to mention some of the US and European politicians suddenly withdrawing from meetings, and boycotting anything Saudis, were waiting with baited breath for an opportunity to pounce on Mohammed bin Salman the moment he was perceived to have made a political mistake in handling a PR crisis. It is, let us understand, a PR and not a human rights crisis, for hundreds, if not t housands of far more qualified journalists are arrested and killed around the world with nary a peep from the outraged mob, which has adopted Khashoggi as their saint. This sudden attack on KSA appears to be well organized and orchestrated, as though the death of Khashoggi somehow undoes whatever progress the country has achieved or is equivalent in moral value to much worse crimes by much more brutal regimes.

The truth of the matter is, perhaps the Crown Prince has not been brutal enough. To wit, his corruption probe led to no deaths of any of his enemies, who are now free and embittered, and all have a reason to plot against him. The fact that no human rights defender would take that significant fact into consideration seems almost laughable. And yet, hating KSA is easy. Bringing up a laundry list of past real and perceived offenses, some of which well precede the Crown Prince’s accession to power, makes everyone feel virtuous because KSA is easy to portray as a symbol of evil due to its existing image. No need to show work. The emotional appeal of the grotesque story has worked in parallels to the Saudis’ ham-handed communications.  Let’s take relatively well meaning people who may be incompetent, arrogant, spoiled, and somewhat deluded, and punish them for being themselves and for their past, which they are now struggling to shed – struggling, because their lack of skills makes any progress even harder than usual. The truth is, there is neither honor nor glory in kicking someone who is already down.  Clearly, the country and its government have had their vulnerabilities  – in communications, in PR, in intelligence, in the military, and much else.

But there seems to be a bloodthirsty social yearning, not just to criticize and to correct with an eye towards improvement, but to destroy and humiliate as revenge for past wrongs, for KSA’s wealth that many envy, and for the fact that it stands in the way of doing easy business with Iran, Qatar, and other bad actors. The deeply personal and excessive tone of many politicians, human rights activists, and journalists has not been aimed at changing the dynamic in the relationship for the better but rather towards a mass appeal to “all the right people”  – constituents, moralizers, do gooders, and of course, opposing President Trump. It has nothing to do with justice, righteousness, compassion, or desire for reform.  There is hardly concern for any human rights of anybody. Many human rights activists called for bankrupting the country, with little regard as to what will happen to the people there, nor a plan for a transition. They seem uninterested in anything but seeking revenge against people they don’t like, whom they have never met and whose minds they do not know. They are just as disinterested in learning about the risks some of the people who work for the KSA government have taken just by supporting any reform. Considering that many of its citizens are government dependent, desire for mass bankruptcy will affect some  newly graduated college students with few options but working for the state at least as much as not more as high level government officials.

I do not accept this approach. Revenge is not justice. Inflicting pain for the sake of inflicting pain has little to do with reforming the society or teaching its leaders how to do better. The instinct for humiliation and destruction, and open bigotry with not even an ounce of compassion for those who may be struggling to do the right thing without knowing how to do it, is just as ugly in people who consider themselves human rights defenders as in people who do not claim to care for that issue at all.  The Khashoggi affair revealed some of the ugliest sides of human nature when it comes to exercising judgment, justice, and measured thinking towards people who seem to be inherently unlikeable or different. Some of the abuse seems to be fueled by schadenfreude of lashing out at wealthy and powerful people who are suddenly humbled and ostracized.

It is revolting and I want nothing to do with it. It is no more virtuous than the extreme abuse the protagonist of “A Clockwork Orange” has suffered as a result of experiments in imposing morality and virtue by force. We see the same sort of dynamic here – there was never a thought that there would be a social openness to forgiveness and possibility of atonement if only the Saudis had communicated clearly from the start. What incentive would anyone in that situation have to reach out to others and open up if the only thing they can count on is public degradation and harsh treatment? One cannot blame its officials for not knowing how to handle what happened, much less the implicit assumption of guilt without any examination of evidence. That many of their so-called friends were all too happy to base their opinions of the situation from the vague and unsubstantiated accounts by Turkey and various adversarial media only showed the Saudis that there would be no justice and no reason to pursue additional transparency beyond what was absolutely necessary.

No one cared whether they were guilty or innocent. Their fate was already decided. There was an agenda to punish them \in some way for something; it was only a matter of time. And adversarial states, which likely poured money into media outlets here and campaigns of all sorts to make this sudden social media war on KSA possible, benefited from the greed, cowardice, and hypocrisy of the so called “caring” groups and organizations to weaken and attack Saudi Arabia, seeking Mohammed bin Salman’s downfall. The true intentions of these outlets and their backers have been self evident. The media community has been dishonest about Khashoggi’s background in intelligence and about the likelihood of other parties in framing the Saudis. It could easily be that some internal faction caught wind of the planned operation and hired some of the Saudi nationals to carry out a cheap ludicrous set up.  The process of examining this information with honesty has not been observed; the Saudi enemies knew what would happen.

The media has become nothing more than mercenaries for hire. They deliberately suppressed relevant information that could have informed different thinking to produce a convenient narrative, which propelled Khashoggi to martyrdom. Furthermore, when outed, many of these outlets falsely claimed that he was a Muslim Brotherhood supporter when he was younger; they denied his more recent articles defending the Ikhwan, or event tried to characterize these poorly written pieces as supportive of more aggressive reforms in Saudi Arabia. However, Khashoggi was not a reformist. He was a proponent of violent ideologues, who fund terrorist organizations all over the Middle Eat and seek revolutionary ends to stable governments. He was a proponent of return to medieval Islam in its harshest understanding; he adopted Erdogan’s violent and ruthless AKP as a model, and sought to engage Saudi Arabia in a war with Israel. This was not someone who cared about liberalization or individual freedoms, despite presenting himself as a soft-spoken, rational, intellectual moderate. The media has picked up this false narrative, in essence becoming mouthpieces for Turkey, Qatar, and the Brotherhood. Why was such a \person hired as a columnist to begin with? Does the Washington Post not know the difference between a thoughtful writer and a hack of an ideologue? Does the Post not see the difference between strong, effective writing and poor scribbling? Why is American press seeking to destabilize all of the Middle East and to empower the enemies of the United States?  The reality is, the Western media, as much as Al Jazeera, may be all too happy to carry water for revolutionary minded regimes and organizations. IT would be worthwhile to examine closely the financial relationship between the press, which has been most blatantly one sided on this issue and foreign funders.

Perhaps all of these virtue signalers are nothing more than foreign agents, who are acting as political operatives, and who should be forced to register under FARA with their press credentials taken away. Just one example of that was CNN, which produced a report based on two anonymous sources alleging that Saudi Arabia would be admitting to an inadvertent killing of Khashoggi in the course of a detainment gone awry. Shortly, after making that discredited report, CNN talking heads urged Trump to turn Pompeo’s plane around. They had acted not as journalists covering and maybe questioning a complicated situation, but as political activists. In a similar vein, a number of outlets relied on fabricated sources, failing to check them and being forced to retract obviously fictitious stories. ABC, in a particularly blatant act of bad faith, refused to retract a fake news item of Pompeo allegedly having listened to the Turkish audio of Khashoggi’s demise.

None of these outlets ultimately apologized for blatant violations and reliance on poorly sourced information that would under normal circumstances be reason enough to question their journalistic ethics, and have people fired over such poor coverage. But because the subject is perceived as untrustworthy and unlikeable – and worst of all, vulnerable and under attack – their audiences ate it up. And the human rights defenders, stood by, watching these show trials by media, satisfied with being feeling self-righteous.  Apparently, due process only matters when these human rights defenders are in charge in determining who deserves it.  Apparently, assumptions and perceptions are justice enough for people we don’t like. Nor do they care that such attitude empowers other proven human rights abusers. Moral equivalence is easy and requires no painful examination of all factors. It is much easier to be dismissive of reforms than to weigh in on uncomfortable process and ask what can be done to help make changes. It is much easier to condemn and to dismiss than to learn and to understand.

These human rights defenders stood by with ease and schadenfreude as the media outlets engaged in conduct unbecoming of the press, essentially comparing the Muslim Brotherhood spy Khashoggi to the investigative journalist Daniel Pearl who was murdered seeking to expose terrorists, or to Foley, Satloff, and others, who died in the hands of terrorist seeing to cover, to inform, and to educate the public, rather than engaging in blatant political activism, seeking to undermine political enemies of their backers – as what Khashoggi was doing for Alwaleed bin Talal and Turki Al Faisal. These human rights defenders should be ashamed of themselves, and should reexamine their motivations before they engage any further, and one day come to bring harm to the very people they seek to protect because their personal feelings against particular governments are stronger than their motivation to do whatever is possible and necessary to actually get the outcomes everyone could be happy with. I do not walk with them; I seek a just process and humane, compassionate, and rational relationship with whomever can be helpful in improving the human condition. And unlike the human rights defenders, in whose eyes, someone must be a villain if someone else is being oppressed, I am looking past the facile narrative of crime and punishment, and towards extending a helping hand to whomever is looking to do the right thing – even when it’s a government with a poor reputation it is seeking to change.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.