Why Countries Aren’t Sanctioning the Saudi Government Over Khashoggi

Targeted sanctions against individuals allow governments to balance their geopolitical interests with their human-rights concerns.

A protestor holds a sign that says "Where is Khashoggi?" outside the White House.
Western governments have responded to Khashoggi's murder by sanctioning individual Saudis instead of the entire country. (Leah Millis / Reuters)

First the sanctions came from the United States. Then Germany. France soon followed. And now, Canada. Last week, the Canadian government announced it too would impose targeted sanctions against 17 Saudi nationals over the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

This is the latest international reprisal aimed at ensuring that those believed to be responsible for the death of Khashoggi are “held to account.” And in an age where diplomatic considerations often supersede the desire of governments to go after human-rights offenders—especially when it concerns an ally—it offers a look at how some countries are balancing their geopolitical interests with their concern for human rights.

So far, the sanctions that have been issued in response to Khashoggi’s death have focused solely on those believed to have taken direct part in his murder. Absent from these sanction lists, of course, is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is suspected of having ordered the hit. The Saudi government denies the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death, and President Donald Trump, in apparent defiance of his own intelligence agency, has done the same.

But Trump isn’t the only one who has shied away from publicly maligning MbS, as the crown prince is commonly known. Around the world, Western leaders have offered muted criticism of the Saudi government’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s killing, opting instead to call on Riyadh to provide a more credible response for what happened to the journalist. More extreme repercussions, such as halting arms exports to Saudi Arabia, have been widely rejected by the U.S., Britain, and France for fear of upsetting a strategic ally.

This is where targeted sanctions come in. Through the Global Magnitsky Act and laws like it, governments have been able to inflict reprisals against human-rights-offending countries by imposing targeted sanctions against those directly responsible for the abuses. The initial version of the act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2012, was created as a means to punish the Russian officials responsible for the death of the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky by freezing their assets in the country and banning them from entry. Since then, the U.S. has passed an updated version allowing targeted sanctions against officials in countries other than Russia. Other governments, too, have implemented their own versions of the Magnitsky Act, enabling them to name and shame human-rights abusers in ways that their geopolitical interests may have otherwise prohibited.

“The old technology for dealing with atrocities was to sanction the country,” Bill Browder, the human-rights activist behind the Global Magnitsky Act, told me, noting that statewide sanctions rarely reach their intended target. “The average person in the country would end up suffering, and the elites, the people who actually committed the crime, would … live exactly how they were living before. It didn’t really work.”

Targeting individuals directly, as Canada and others have done in the case of Saudi Arabia, ensures that those directly responsible for the crime face the consequences. And while such sanctions don’t necessarily result in conviction or imprisonment, they do hit targets where it counts: their wallets. Indeed, assets frozen as a result of such sanctions have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.

But perhaps most important, targeted sanctions allow governments to save diplomatic face. By going after specific individuals, rather than a broader government, countries imposing sanctions don’t have to worry about the political ramifications of the decision, nor of diplomatic reprisals. This is particularly true for those seeking to respond to Khashoggi’s death without upsetting the energy, security, and regional cooperation that underpins certain countries’ relationship with the Saudi government. By imposing sanctions, “it doesn’t mean one can’t continue to be allies with Saudi Arabia,” Browder said. “It just means you’re going to punish the individuals who committed the crime.”

It’s this kind of approach that Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank, is advocating for the European Union to take. Speaking by phone from Berlin, he said that by tasking a commission with highlighting specific human-rights abuses worldwide, the EU can move to impose sanctions against the offending individuals, and inspire other governments to do the same.

“It’s like a negative Oscars, a rotten-apple event,” Knaus said. “Once a year in The Hague, they present these stories and recommend to the EU to put these five people on a travel ban, and then it goes to the [European] council. There is still unanimity required, but it’s much, much harder to veto then because there will be so much visibility on the individual cases.”

Though no such event exists yet, Knaus said it could help combat corruption—particularly within the bloc’s human-rights arm, the Council of Europe. In April, a bribery probe revealed that some members of the organization’s parliamentary assembly accepted millions of euros in bribes from Azerbaijani diplomats in exchange for voting in favor of the oil-rich country, which has overseen a large-scale crackdown on dissent and the media.

Azerbaijan “is really what got us thinking about designing a system that makes it less easy for lobbying and corruption targeting just one or two EU member states or politicians to undermine the possibility to sanction,” Knaus said. “If we bring these [abuses] out into the open, the political cost of vetoing such sanctions becomes harder.”

While targeted sanctions against specific individuals are one way of combating human-rights violations, they’re not the only way. In the U.S., lawmakers have sought out additional ways of applying pressure on Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s death, most recently by seeking to end Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. In Argentina, a prosecutor is considering bringing charges against MbS for crimes against humanity, though it seems unlikely that such a prosecution would be viable.

Though Browder conceded that targeted sanctions may not necessarily reach the highest levels of government, they’re nonetheless an effective deterrent. “If you’re living in a world where there’s no consequences for bad actions, bad actors will act,” he said. “If there’s consequences, and those consequences are meaningful, then they’ll have to weigh up the cost of the action versus the benefit of the action. It’s as simple as that.”