Washington, DC- Less than two years ago, then-US presidential candidate Joe Biden replied:Yes‘ when asked if he would punish senior Saudi leaders for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
But this week, just days before the three-year anniversary of the murder of the journalist On Oct. 2, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the Gulf Kingdom.
That, analysts say, is the latest example of Biden’s failure to deliver on his promise to account for the killings — and put human rights at the heart of United States foreign policy.
“This trip is truly a slap in the face to all of us who have advocated for justice for Jamal Khashoggi,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a group envisioned by Khashoggi and has been formally established. after his death.
Relations between Riyadh and Washington are not as warm as they were under ex-President Donald Trump, who personally defended MBS amid widespread anger in Congress after the assassination, and the Biden administration has taken some steps to shed light on what happened.
Earlier this year, the government released a brief report on the US intelligence communities assessment of the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was murdered and dismembered after collecting paperwork from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
“We are assessing that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to arrest or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the report said.
The findings were rejected by the Saudi government, which blamed the killing on a crew of rogue officials. Eight unnamed suspects have be convicted to seven to 20 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for alleged involvement in the murder.
Saudi officials initially insisted on that Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate unharmed. More than two weeks later, the kingdom acknowledged the murder but said it was the result of an unauthorized operation that took place without top officials’ knowledge.
The publication of the US report renewed calls on Washington to hold the crown prince accountable, but the Biden administration decided not to impose sanctions on bin Salman, arguing that it tried to recalibrate – “do not sever” – ties with Riyadh.
Agnes Callamard, the former United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, this week expressed disappointment at the Biden administration, saying “not much has changed” since the intelligence community’s assessment was published.
“They have to be very careful that their pretense to engage in human rights, their commitment to democracy, their commitment to human rights, don’t become just pretense,” said Callamard, who is now secretary general at Amnesty International.
In her own report before the UN in 2019, Callamard concluded that the Saudi government was ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
At an event commemorating the anniversary of the murder on Thursday, Callamard said that while those who committed the murder have yet to be brought to justice, human rights defenders and the UN investigation have exposed them.
“We definitely shattered their veneer,” she said. “In my opinion the Emperor is naked.”
The assassination of Khashoggi came at a time when Democrats in Washington were already questioning then-President Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudi royal family.
While Trump took steps to protect Saudi Arabia’s top leaders from the effects of the assassination, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress pushed for responsibility for the death of Khashoggi, who lived in the US and worked for a US newspaper.
As a candidate, Biden echoed that anger against Saudi Arabia. “Khashoggi was basically murdered and dismembered — and I believe in the order of the crown prince,” Biden said in late 2019 during a heated debate ahead of the Democratic primaries.
He promised to make the kingdom “pay the price” for the murder and promised to end arms sales to Riyadh. “There is little social redemptive value from the current government in Saudi Arabia,” Biden said at the time.
But the fiery rhetoric didn’t translate into policy when the campaigns ended and governance began.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said that while the group applauds “this administration’s commitment and its promise to put human rights at the top of its agenda,” more needs to be done.
“As we see the atrocities continue in the Middle East and around the world, we want to remind this government that its promise must be kept,” Awad said at Thursday’s event.
The White House National Security Council did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment in time for publication.
The White House announced Sullivan’s trip to the Middle East late Monday — the same day he met MBS. The Biden administration has not released details of the meeting, but Saudi Arabia confirmed the talks and said they focused on Yemen and other regional issues.
Since taking office in January, the Biden administration has: announced plans to end US support for the kingdom’s offensive operations in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been involved in a bombing campaign against the country’s Houthi rebels since 2015.
Amid increasing civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisisUS involvement in the war in Yemen had become less and less popular in Congress. Biden also halted some arms sales approved by the previous administration and released the Khashoggi report.
But these measures often involved balancing acts, analysts note.
While the US says it is not involved in Yemen, it has reaffirmed its commitment to kingdom security and anti-war activists say: Washington is not doing enough to pressure Riyadh to lift the blockade of the war-torn country.
Earlier this year, there were also signs of a renormalization of ties between the Biden government and Saudi officials.
Khalid bin Salman, the brother of MBS who was ambassador to the US at the time of Khashoggi’s murder, top officials during a visit to Washington in July. Prince Khalid, who is now deputy defense secretary, held talks with Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, among others.
Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC think tank, said Washington is scaling back its involvement in the Middle East but has not decided to leave the Gulf region, where Saudi Arabia remains a key player, entirely.
“So they’re trying to see what works — so to speak,” he told Al Jazeera.
Harb said US policy is returning to pre-Trump days; namely, verbally supporting human rights but pursuing American interests. “The talk is still about rights and democracy and stuff, but we’re actually back to something the United States used to do — basically talking about what’s being said and not walking,” he said.
Against this backdrop, DAWN’s Jarrar said that even though three years have passed since Khashoggi’s death, advocates remain committed to getting justice for the murdered journalist, regardless of who is in the White House.
“Justice now looks exactly the same as it did three years ago,” Jarrar said. “We must hold every person behind Khashoggi’s murder accountable by using all the tools in our toolbox — including sanctions, including lawsuits, including criminal proceedings.”