We are witnessing the global retreat of democracy under an “age of impunity,” warned former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in a Fulbright Lecture last month. The former Labour MP who is now the chief executive of the International Rescue Committee spoke at length about the dark cloud that hangs over us. He described the current period in global politics as “the rise and fall of accountability” where “a new and chilling normal is coming into view.”
Miliband described this new normal as a place where “civilians [are] seen as fair game” and “when those engaged in conflicts around the world… believe they can get away with anything, including murder, whatever the rules and norms.” Perhaps most worrying of all, “Because they can get away with anything, they do everything.”
Citing a long list of examples to show that we are indeed living in an “age of impunity”, Miliband explained that, “From 2011 to today there has been a six-fold increase in annual battle deaths, with 2014 and 2015 being the deadliest years on the battlefield since the end of the Cold War.”
His list contained many shocking statistics: 142 million children are said to be living in high-intensity conflict zones; more than 20,000 civilians were killed by explosive weapons last year alone; the number of aid workers killed each year between 2013 and 2018 was more than double the 2001-2005 figure; civil wars are now on average three times as deadly as they were in the first half of the 20th century; and these civil wars are generating more refugees (29.5 million) and internally displaced persons (41 million) than ever before.
It would be tempting for those living in the West in the safety and comfort afforded to them by their governments, to assume that these evils can be isolated from their own lives, and that they can ignore Miliband’s warning about the corrosion of democratic principles. “The checks and balances that protect the lives of the most vulnerable people abroad,” he pointed out, “will only be sustained if we renew the checks and balances that sustain liberty at home.”
Perhaps no other incident has tested this theory in recent times more than the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October last year. The gruesome killing of the Washington Post journalist was a clear sign that impunity and authoritarianism cannot be contained. Given the right political context, in an age of impunity where human rights and international law are valued less than trade and self-interest, authoritarianism trickles down and decays the rights and liberties guaranteed — at least in theory — in the West.
Khashoggi’s murder, perhaps more than any of the other horrors cited by Miliband to illustrate this impunity, has come to symbolise the biggest stress test of our international rules-based system. His killing, according to the UN’s extrajudicial executions investigator, Agnes Callamard, was more than a violation of the rights of one individual. The French Human Rights expert, who was speaking at an event in London yesterday about her report, echoed Miliband’s concerns over the rise of political impunity and pointed out that the journalist’s murder was a major test for the international community as it breached global norms on torture, enforced disappearance, consular relations and the prohibition of extraterritorial use of force. Callamard believes that the seriousness of the crime was such that it constituted an international crime over which states should claim universal jurisdiction.
Speaking on a panel with Khashoggi’s Washington Post colleague Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz and Yahya Assiri, founder of human rights group ALQST, Callamard went through the conclusion of her report that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was responsible for the journalist’s enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution. She said that 15 Saudi agents acted under their official status and used state resources to commit murder. High-level officials in Riyadh oversaw the elaborate planning, which involved private jets, diplomatic clearances, a forensic doctor and Saudi consular staff in Istanbul.
Criticising the global response and the apparent rehabilitation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman during the recent G20 Summit, Callamard warned against the threat of authoritarianism and the rise of impunity. “What are the risks if such crimes are allowed to pass without sanctions?” she asked. She insisted that justice for Jamal Khashoggi had far-reaching global consequences, including justice for demonstrators in Sudan, campaigners in Egypt and every journalist and activist who is standing up against the rise of authoritarianism across the world.
Throughout the event, US President Donald Trump was singled out as the biggest single catalyst for the rise in authoritarianism and impunity. “How did we get here?” asked Attiah. “Would it have happened under Obama?”
She directed her anger at the current US President for his persistent refusal to accept the conclusions reached by his own intelligence agencies, which believe that the Saudi Prince was complicit in Khashoggi’s killing. Attiah insisted that his murder while he was a resident of the US was “an attack on the Washington Post, an attack on American media and an attack on American institutions.”
Turning her attention to the rise of authoritarianism, Attiah asked a number of rhetorical questions: “Did the US protect Jamal? What sort of America do we want? Is it a force for good or is it enabling dictators? Does it put money over lives?” The battle for justice for Khashoggi, she claimed, is a “fight for the soul of who we are.”
For Hatice Cengiz, the failure to take a moral stance against the murder of her fiancée “will take the international community to a dark place.” She called on the US and European states to take the killing seriously, and pointed out that it is “too dangerous to behave as if nothing had happened” in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. She finished by calling for “Justice for Jamal and all of the other Jamals of the world.” Khashoggi’s murder really does reflect the age of impunity in which we live.