Experts

Current topics explained by RUG professionals

Sanctions

Saudi journalist Khashoggi disappeared at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. It turned out he had been murdered. Should sanctions be imposed on the country of Saudi Arabia? Is that even possible, and if so, which ones are acceptable, and what is the role of journalism?
By Christine Dirkse

Marcel Brus

Professor of international public law

‘There are two types of sanctions when it comes to Saudi Arabia. First, there is such a thing as an ‘unkind gesture’, where for example ministers refuse to attend conferences. This sends a clear signal without anyone breaking any laws. These sanctions are always allowed; there are no rules about them.

But then there are the kinds of sanctions that technically break international law, for instance when countries decide to supply fewer weapons in defiance of an earlier contract or by limiting the landing rights of international airlines. Sanctions like these can only be carried by countries in response to an unlawful act that affects them. So in the matter of Saudi Arabia, the question is who has been affected.

You could say that Turkey has been wronged, since a brutal murder occurred on Turkish territory – albeit in another country’s consulate – and the diplomatic status has been abused.

But the actions they take would have to be proportional. Confiscating all of Saudi Arabia’s possessions in Turkey because of a single murder wouldn’t be proportional, for example. Counter measures are never allowed to be violent, by the way.

Then there’s the issue of the fact that many countries feel that Saudi Arabia has violated human rights. Countries can take action, but these things are usually addressed through the UN. Saudi Arabia has been violating human rights for much longer. Should the Netherlands decide to take actions just because this single case is receiving a lot of media attention, we would look rather foolish.’

Doeko Bosscher

Emeritus professor of modern history

‘America has revoked the visa of the people involved in the murder. That’s a nice gesture that might placate the public, but it doesn’t actually affect Saudi Arabia. The US probably won’t impose any real, effective sanctions. After Israel, Saudi Arabia is one of their most important allies that America supplies with weapons.

But it’s a very unstable relationship, since Saudi Arabia is an enemy of Israel. The relationship has been rocky for much longer, though. Take 9/11 for example: the large majority of the perpetrators of the attacks were Saudi, and Osama Bin Laden was of Saudi Arabian descent as well.

Nevertheless, America won’t impose any effective sanctions. Their interests are too large and the relationship with the country is too important to them. Sanctions also tarnish a country’s honour. Saudi Arabia has a shame culture; when their honour is tarnished they are supposed to respond strongly. And America doesn’t want that to happen.

In the best-case scenario, diplomats will be able to convince Saudi Arabia to make a sacrifice to appease the rest of the world, for example by deposing the current crown prince and replacing him with one of the other princes. But even that is unlikely to happen.’

Scott Eldridge

Assistant professor of journalism

‘The death of the journalist in Saudi Arabia shocked the journalism community. First of all it’s a condemnation of freedom of the press: journalists still aren’t free to write about whatever they want.

We might ask ourselves if we aren’t overreacting to this murder, since it’s of just one person; Saudi Arabia has killed many more people in Yemen, and we don’t pay nearly as much attention to that.

The press response is so much more intense because there was a colleague involved. It’s the same for politicians when another politician is murdered. And that’s fine, as long as the journalism community handles it well. This story will give them the opportunity to shed light on the context.

Good reporting would consist of a substantive story that’s a mix of sensation and context, not a sensational story that focuses overly much on details. It’s a good impetus to denounce all the other ways Saudi Arabia has violated human rights.

It might seem like the media is encouraging countries to impose sanctions, but good reporters only report what other people are saying. After a lot of fact-checking, that is. Trump for example has mentioned no sanctions whatsoever, but some members of Congress have, and that’s what journalists are writing about. Not as a way to push or exert control, but as an act of reporting. Journalists can only call for sanctions in opinion pieces or columns.’

Nederlands